Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Week in the African Bush

(See Molly's recent post below for details about the previous week, which she had been unable to post due to a lack of Internet access.)

It is hard to believe another week has gone by already... especially since this week marks the halfway point of our volunteer experience. It is the end of session one of two sessions of the Ghana ACT summer program, and while Molly and I are staying for both sessions, many of our fellow volunteers are not. While it is sad that some of our friends are leaving, it is fun to meet the new volunteers that continue to arrive. This past week we went to Mole National Park, which is located in the northern part of Ghana. We volunteer in the southern part of Ghana, so we trekked across the nation, which is quite an adventure.

Instead of taking tro-tros, we took the Metro buses, which are part of a government initiative to make cross-country travel safer. We left last Sunday at 4:00 am and drove 8 hours to Kumasi, which is a bustling town with quite a different--more aggressive--feel to it than Ho. Molly and I did a long run in Kumasi, weaving around the vendors and dodging taxis and curious pedestrians. We stayed overnight at the Methodist Church, where we were greeting warmly by Mama Suzie's brother. (Mama Suzie is one of the administators of McColin's School--Molly and I eat lunch with her every day.) The next morning we woke up again at 3:30 am for the bus to Tomale, where we got another bus to Mole. This last leg of the journey was the bumpiest ride I have every been on. For 4 hours our bodies were jostled all over the place in a bus that was going way too fast on a washed-out dirt road that must never have been maintained. At some points, we were thrown 3 feet up in the air (there are no seatbelts!) We didn't arrive at Mole National Park until 8:00 pm. It was a LONG two days of travel, but Mole was definitely worth every minute of it!

Mole is over 4,000 square kilometers of the wild African bush--it was begging to be explored! The first morning that we were there, we went on a safari with a guide. (The guides always carried a rifle just in case an animal got too close). That night we stayed in a treehouse in the middle of the jungle. (We had a guide with us the whole night.) While we were in Mole, we saw countless warthogs, baboons, red monkeys, antelope, crocodiles, and ELEPHANTS!!! The elephants were everywhere--we even saw them in the moonlight when we stayed in the treehouse. Needless to say, while we were in Mole our runs were adventures! This week, I think the pictures will do most of the talking... Though the trip there and back was long and, at times, brutal, we will never forget our once-in-a-lifetime experience at Mole--as you will see from the pictures.


Warthogs sleeping in the shade

Elephants bathing

An elephant that got within 100 feet of our room

The treehouse we stayed overnight in

Our safari guide


An elephant greeting

So many elephants!

They were so close to us!

Crossing the river

In Sickness and In Health

Bout a week since our last post--time for another update! Annelise and I are still having a blast, experiencing new things everyday, and treasuring every moment here in Ho, but I have to say there were a couple of days this last week that we both wished we could've pushed the fast forward button. But let's start with the good stuff! Last Saturday we went on a daytrip to a stunning town, high in the mountains, called Aburi. We traveled with the other volunteers, as well as our Ghanaian friend, Linda, who cooks for our house everyday, and another volunteer from the US, Mike, who works right across the street at an orphanage. Funny sidenote, Mike is a VMI alumni. Small world! Anyway, we all left bright and early as usual and roadtripped it via Tro Tro for about 3 or 4 hours. Our first stop in Aburi was the Botanical gardens, which were beautiful, with giant trees, lots of flowers, and an old helicopter that had actually crashed there some twenty or thirty years ago. Today people just take pictures of it and climb around inside.One of the trees in the garden was taken over by a fungus and hollowed out, so now its possible to climb inside the tree and look up all the way up to the sky--you can even climb up the trunk from the inside! Also, I thought trees in S.E. Alaska grow pretty big but there were a few in Aburi that would have put them all to shame.

So after exploring the botanical gardens, we all rented mountain bikes and were lead by a Ghanaian guide on a route through the town and the rainforest to another gorgeous waterfall. Swimming in the water felt sooooo good after the long, hot ride. I'm definitely not a very experienced mountain biker so adjusting to the rocky, uneven, and steep terrain took a little while. It was pretty fun though once I got the hang of it and got over my initial apprehension. And the lady that rented us the bikes had cold fresh pineapple waiting for us when we got back---best surprise EVER. Another highlight of the trip was the fact that we found a place that served real pizza and burgers. REAL PIZZA. AND BURGERS. with CHEESE!! Haha the food we've been eating as been quite delicious for the most part, but we've certainly had to adjust our diets, and I swear that burger was one of the best I've ever tasted. It was a good end to a great trip.

On Sunday, the whole group traveled out to a village near Ho, called Saviefe Deme, where a large portion of the volunteers are stationed, who aren't working at McColin's. The village was celebrating Children's Day, and the students put on a big performance for the whole community. It was really sweet and very fun to watch. They sang, danced, and recited poems and bible versus. The mothers of the town cooked food and brought produce to auction off as a fundraiser for the school. Then they came up and sang and danced themselves, inviting us to join in. It was really cool to get a chance to see a community that was so close-knit and so invested in their children. Getting there was really fun too, as first we all took a half hour taxi ride, and then we all hopped on the back of motorcycle "taxis" that took us the three miles down the dirt road that most normal taxis won't drive down. It was a beautiful ride the whole way, as the city faded away and we moved higher and higher into the mountains.

On Monday we had a good day of teaching and coaching basketball, but on Monday night both Annelise and I started feeling really sick. We were up most of the night and by Tuesday morning we both felt really weak and really miserable, and were showing symptoms of malaria. Since we both got sick at the same time though, we figured it was probably something else, so we just stayed home and rested and drank a ton of water. I can honestly say that it was the sickest I've ever felt in my life, but luckily I was starting to feel better after about 24 hours. By Wednesday we were both feeling much improved, so we think it was probably food poisoning of some kind. We took it easy the next couple of days, returning to school Thursday, which was a shortened day due to a PTA meeting during which we were introduced to all the parents. We went back to Saviefe on Friday because McColin's didn't have classes, so we got to see more of the village and experience more of their unparalleled hospitality.

We are thankful that we were able to recover quickly from our illness so that we could continue to have to have these wonderful experiences!

The children dancing during Children's Day at Saviefe Deme

Children's Day

John, the Ghana ACT program director, and Enyonam at Children's Day

Jumping out of the (crashed) helicopter at Aburi

Molly climbing up the hollowed out tree at Aburi Botanical Gardens

McColin's PTA Meeting

Friday, June 15, 2012

Banku, Fufu, and FanIce--Oh My!

Wow! We've had another eventful week here in Ho--so eventful that the U.S. Embassy in Accra has issued a traveler's advisory for our area. There has been some Muslim riots in a neighboring village, and a few lives have been tragically taken. Fortunately, the violence has been isolated and we have not been affected by it. There has been some violence in Ho, though. Just down the street at the market, a police officer shot a man who attempted to rob a shop. The other shoppers turned against the officer because they thought he had shot the man for no reason. Due to this incident, the police have had a heavier presence here lately. The police depo is across the street from our house, so we feel pretty safe.

We have had quite a few things to adjust to since we have arrived. For instance, the city of Ho randomly turns off the electricity and/or water in an effort to conserve. (The first quesiton the children asked me when they had an opportunity to ask me about America was whether the cities randomly turn of the water every day. They were shocked to hear that it doesn't happen in America.) Many times I have returned from a long, hot run excited to take a shower, only to be disappointed by a lack of water. We have also learned how to cope without a toilet, as the students at McColin's School do not use one. Also--and this may be the most difficult thing we have had to adapt to--is a lack of a washing machine and dryer. We scrub our clothes by hand with a soapy bucket of water. Depending on how many dirty clothes I have, it takes about two hours. Molly and I have had a lot of dirty laundry due to running every day, sometimes twice a day. Maybe this why the Ghanaians laugh when we say we run simply for exercise. The concept is unheard of here. Also, because it is rainy season here, it rains almost every day... So sometimes our clean clothes take a LONG TIME to dry outside!

Along with handwashing our clothes, we have had so many new experience since coming to Ho. A few random examples: We have both had several marriage proposals from strangers. We often see goats, and chickens run alongside the road. We have had to sit on each other's laps in the taxis because the taxi drivers literally fill the car as full as possible with passengers to travel across town. We have tried fufu, banku, red red, and other traditional Ghanaian dishes because we have a local woman, Linda, come and cook for us every night. She teaches us about the dishes as well. The food here is spicier than I originally expected. Another first time experience for me is having a meal consisting of all carbs--rice with yams and a side of bread was a meal we had recently! There is no milk and not much animal meat here... Molly and I have started to eat quite a bit of FanIce for calcium, which is supposedly "vanilla ice cream" but it tastes so different--it is such a smooth, refreshing treat.

FanIce is especially refreshing after a long day of teaching and coaching the children. Here is a typical day for us: Begin running at 5:45 (this is considered late by many Ghanaians, who are up before dawn washing and sweeping), shower (when there is water), eat breakfast, and leave for school by 8:00 (school is about a mile from home), teach math, English, citizenship, religious and moral education, art, or computer skills to either third, forth, fifth, or sixth graders throughout the rest of the school day (which ends at 3:30), coach the children in basketball, football, or soccer during breaks, coach the children after school until 5:00, and then return home to eat, and get ready for another day. We are extremely exhausted and DIRTY at the end of every. The red African dirt coats our clothes and skin from head to toe! I have dirt stains on my feet and ankles that I can't wash off, no matter how hard I try.

Although Molly and I both started off teaching the younger children (kindergarten-1st grade), we have been teaching older children more lately (3rd-6th grade). This is our preference, as the younger children are not as well behaved, and we have trouble controlling them due to somewhat of a language barrier (our American accents) and also due to the fact that we refuse to beat the children. In the Ghana school system, beating is customary. Sometimes they use branches, and they aren't afraid to hit children on the head. It is painful for me to watch. The children expect it, though, and since neither Molly or I do it, we have trouble getting control of a classroom full of younger children because they don't respond to any punishment that does not involve a whip or stick. Anyway, we can pretty much teach whatever subject and class we want to teach, because the teachers and the students like us to come and teach their class at any time. During breaks, we usually help Michael, a teacher, with a script that he is writing for a Christian movie he plans to direct one day.

Our after school program is off to a great start! At first, it was utter chaos as we tried to organize which of the 270 kids would play each day. We have had several discussions with the school's sportsmaster, who believes that only the most talented kids should have the opportunity to play. We have worked out a 3 group rotation. There is a group of younger kids, a group of girls, and a group of boys. Each group has about 20 children in it. Each day, one of the groups stays after school to play. The sport we have been working on lately is basketball, or "handball," as they call it. We have been going through basic drills and games dealing with passing, shooting, and dribbling. We have not started playing any real basketball games yet, as we are in the process of getting the materials to set up two hoops. Eventually, there will be a boys team and a girls team that will play against each other and the other schools. The girls are especially dedicated and responsive to coaching because in the past they have not been given the opportunity to play, let alone to be coached. Also, they are not as interested in "football" (soccer) as the boys. Some of the boys have been trying very hard to learn basketball, and they are doing a great job. But many of the boys become too distracted by a game of football to learn anything during basketball practice. Anyway, of the boys and girls that are serious about basketball, I think we will be able to put together competitive teams. After basketball, we will move on to coaching soccer, football, sprinting, and distance running. Also, at the start and end of every practice, we lead the children in warm-ups and cool-downs. The children LOVE to run with us! We have also taught them stretching, agilities, and some exercises, which they also seem to enjoy because we see them practicing on their own during recess. In fact, many of the children practice ball-handling skills during recess, which is really fun to watch. The children really prize the sports equipment and jerseys (which they wear when it is their day to practice after school), and they seem to take pretty good care of everything.

Our cross country training is going well! Whoever told us that Ghana doesn't have hills was mistaken. I have never run so many hills in my life! They are gradual hills, but they are so tiring! We have started to incorporate some two-a-days and a medium-long run into our training, so I think this week we will run close to 55 miles. Later in the summer, we will run about 70 miles a week.We have also been doing some body weight exercises. I think the neighbors think we are crazy. Some of them gather on their porches to cheer us on. They're probably thinking, "Those crazy Yavus!!!" Anyway, sometimes we lift rocks (because the terrain is sooo rocky here!) and the neighbor children join in with us. We have some video that we will try to upload eventually of them doing synchronized squats with rocks. They are so cute! Some of them have even helped us with our laundry when they saw us struggling for hours to get it done.

Last weekend our volunteer group took a trip to Cape Coast, which is located in the Central region rather than the Volta region, where Ho is located. It took us about 6 hours in a tro-tro--(Ghana's form of mass public transportation, which is a normal sized school van that has 18-20 people crammed inside-)-to get to Cape Coast. It was much more tourist-y than Ho, and we actually saw some other Yavus--or as they call us in the Central region "Obronees." We got to tour Cape Coast Castle, which is a 400 year old slave castle that Britain used to hold slaves that would eventually travel on the Middle Passage. We got to walk down in the male and female dungeons. The conditions were horrible... We were literally walking on petrified feces and urine. Many of the captured West Africans died before they ever stepped onto a ship. After the fascinating but depressing tour, we went to the beach and went swimming. The tide was strong, so we didn't go very far out. We ate dinner on the rooftop of the student housing building. They actually served American food, so I was able to get a plateful of spaghetti with BEEF!!! and... A SALAD!!! Yes, a salad. It was the first salad I have seen since I came to Ghana. The next morning we went to Kakum National Park to do a canopy walk. We walked along the rickety bridges high up in the tree tops. It was such a beautiful experience!!!

I'm sorry about the length of this blog post... We would like to post more often so that the posts wouldn't have to be so long, but our Internet use here is very limited.

On the Canopy Walk!

At Cape Coast

The Castle

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Hi all,

We've now been in Ghana for almost six days and are starting to get in the swing of things, but we wanted to share a little bit about our first few days here. Its been an overwhelming, exhausting, but truly amazing first week. After arriving to Accra from Turkey, we met the program director face to face for the first time. His name is |John Barber, and this is his fifth or sixth summer in Ghana. He and |Liam Lynch, the volunteer coordinator, have been really great--super supportive and helpful to all the volunteers, and have been sharing tips with us daily about Ghanaian culture and living in Ho..everything from the official Ghanaian handshake, to what spices to use sparingly ( they looooove hot food) to how to navigate the lively and chaotic city of Ho. Anyway, after we met |John we took a shuttle bus, called a Tro Tro, on a bumpy and hot but very scenic four hour drive from the coast, inland to Ho, where we are based. The scenery slowly changed from developed to rural tropical forest. It was a really great chance to get a feel for the geography of the region. Annelise even saw baboons racing along the side of the road!

Once we arrived in Ho, thursday evening, we met the other volunteers ( we make up a group of eight). Its been really fun getting to know them better; they're all very laidback and interesting people--students like us, though they are all from UMass, John Barber's Alma Mater. And then we got our first tour of the city. If I had to use one word to describe it, it would be "bustling." Taxis and Tro Tros are honking and swerving around everywhere, there are vendors of all kinds lined up and down every street, and the market place takes it to a whole new extreme. You may be wondering the meaning of the title of this post..Yevu means |"white person" and the kids (and many adults) always shout it when we walk by, which I find pretty hilarious. In Ghana its not meant to be offensive in any way, it's just what they call all white people. So thats probably the first Ewe word that we learned while we we've been here, but in the last week we've been slowly building our vocablulary. I now feel comfortable greeting people on the street and using thank you, your welcome..etc.

 Annelise and I have now spent about 4 days at McColins school, and its been truly a blast! The first few days we helped teach a class of 6 and 7 year olds. They are extremely energetic and love to play--when we brought out the sports equipment it was utter mayhem! But so much fun! During recess we taught students of all ages things like how to hold a football and how to shoot a basketball, and they taught us a few of their games, and A LOT of their songs. I learned how to play game called "Ampy" which involves jumping and clapping at exactly the right rhythm..they had to be very patient with me, but its so much fun now that I know it. During class Annelise and I taught the students "rise and shine and give God the glory glory" which was a huge hit. We've also been helping the younger kids with their abcs, and counting, and the older kids with math. Tomorrow, we will have our first group of students after school, which we are very excited about, because we'll be able to teach some of the sports fundamentals in a little more of a structured environment.

Last weekend we went with the rest of the group on a day trip out of Ho, further inland to Tafi monkey sanctuary and Wli waterfall. Annelise and I both agreed that the experience far exceeded anything we could have imagined or hoped for. At the monkey sanctuary, we all held out ripe bananas in our hands and made kissing noises to call the monkeys to us. After about five minutes or so, they slowly started to descend and check us out. Once one monkey dared leaving his tree for the banana, they all started jumping down unto our backs and arms! It was crazy and realllly funny! Especially when three jumped on Annelise when she wasn't expecting it. We then took about a four mile hike straight up a mountain cliff, to hike up to one of the most beautiful waterfalls I've ever seen, and the most powerful! It was a pretty tough hike, especially in the heat, but it was very very worth it. When we got to the waterfall, it felt like we were in the middle of a hurricane from the spray that was coming off it. Annelise and I both braved the wind and water though, and swam out to get right under the falls! It was incredible.

Already, everything has far exceeded our expectations.. The heat has been an adjustment, and we both miss our friends and family a little bit already...not to mention fresh vegetables and meat..which are somewhat limited here. Rice and more rice with a side of bread is extremely popular! But we love our volunteer group, and we've already made some Ghanaian friends! One of the teachers from the school, Gifty, even took us to her friend who is a seamstress, so we could get fitted for traditional dresses. We're definitely trying to immerse ourselves in as many aspects of Ghanaian culture as we can. We'll write again soon with another update. Hope all is well in the States!

-Molly O.

Friday, June 1, 2012

24 Hours in Istanbul

Hello everyone!
As many of you have heard, before arriving in Ghana, we had a twenty-four hour layover in Istanbul! We're happy to say that we made it here safe and sound, and we'll quickly follow with an update of our first two days in Ho, but first we wanted to share our brief but really awesome experiences in Turkey!

We had an 11 hour flight from Dulles to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, and we were very impressed with the gourmet meals and a wide selection of movies. Because it was an overnight flight, we mostly slept. But Istanbul is 7 hours ahead of EST, so by the time we got there it was late afternoon and we were pretty rested and ready to go! We got a hotel in the Sultanhamet area--right in the middle of all the action. We decided to go to the fish market under Galata Bridge to eat. We both got bass and enjoyed our Turkish coffee and tea. We also discovered that in Turkey you can bargain for the price of your food at the restaurants. 

Molly fit right in with the Turks, but I was the only blonde for miles. Everyone was very friendly and wanted to talk to us about Germany because that's where they assumed we were from. We took a cruise of the Bosphorus and even disembarked on the Asia side of Istanbul for a while.

After the cruise, we took a taxi to Taksim Square, where there was a lot going on, despite it being midnight on a Tuesday. The vendors went on and on for miles with so many authentic Turkish goods. We checked out a Turkish nightclub and then went back to our hotel for a few hours of sleep.

The next morning we went for a run along the Bosphorus, which made us stand out because nobody in Istanbul runs. Instead, they have elliptical parks along the Bosphorus. We managed to find our way back to the hotel despite not having an IPhone to tell us where to go. 

 We ate breakfast on the roof of our hotel, which had a beautiful view of Istanbul. Then we headed to the Grand Bazaar, which was much more tourist-y than Taksim Square. We got a couple of souvenirs and then headed to Hagia Sophia.

We toured the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. The history of the Hagia Sophia was fascinating. The structure that is standing today was built in the sixth century. Originally built by the Catholics, it became a Muslim mosque in the sixteenth century. Muslims and Christians alike were touring this relic. In our short time in Istanbul, we took note of how all cultures coexisted peacefully together. 

In our short time in Istanbul, we were able to see quite a bit. But we would love to go back some day. 24 hours in Istanbul is just not enough!