Monthly Archives: August 2011


Today, I hit the worst button possible on this WordPress blog: “Add new category.” That new category was “After”, meaning that this post officially calls my trip to Ghana to a close.

The flights went smoothly, the planes took off and landed on time, and my brother was only 15 minutes late to pick us up from the airport (well, that’s mostly our fault, Customs and Immigration was pretty fast).

Now I can look forward to the joys of Band Camp, finishing summer reading assignments, getting in shape for cross country season, and the beautiful monster known as the Common App. But at no time will my trip be too far from my mind. Even over the past 36 hours, there have been countless moments where something simple reminds me of Ghana in some way. I’m still hesitating to drink water out of a faucet, having mini panic attacks when I feel a mosquito bite me, and confused when my dog actually allows me to pet him (Ghanaian dogs aren’t treated so nicely by….well anyone; if you reach out to pet a dog, it thinks you are going to hit him/her).

I will remember the friendly people I met, the amazing mini-trips I got to experience on the weekends, and chilling out with my fellow volunteers. But as I revert back to my privileged lifestyle, I know my most permanent memory will be all of the young women starting and expanding businesses in the rural villages of Ghana’s Volta Region. With each shower I take, each refrigerator-chilled drink I sip, and each day of my free high school education, I’ll be thinking of Anita, Edith, Evelyn, Margaret, Etonam, and all of the other women I had the honor to meet and work with. While I can sit back and enjoy the rest of my summer, they are out there working hard so they can increase their profits and repay their loans. While I have the opportunity of secondary education handed to me on a silver platter, those women will be struggling to pay to even send their children to junior high.

It’s not fair, but we can make it better than it is. For me, this “After” is merely after the trip. It’s after seeing the hardship, after understanding the disparity, and after realizing our power to do something life-changing for these women.

I’ll be perfectly clear: microfinance will not be the be all, end all solution to an immense problem like poverty. Heck, for a couple of these women, it might not do anything at all. But microfinance is one element of chipping away at the income disparity that defines the world.

This experience will stick to my mind like the Play-doh stuck to those Ghanaian children’s fingers the first time they ever mixed up that wonderful, vibrantly colorful molding clay.

Thanks for reading, and stick around if you would like. There will be a few extra things going up that I didn’t have the chance to blog about earlier.

The traveling is finished….at least for this summer. Backpacking through Europe anyone?


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Leaving home for home

The reason why I have not posted for the past couple days is simple: it would have meant acknowledging that my trip is ending and I’m heading back home to New York. My trip to Alaska last summer was my first month-long trip away from home in my life. I found it extremely difficult to readjust to everyday life coming back from that trip. The people you meet, the things you see; you get a bit spoiled when everything is new and exciting all of the time. Ghana really has become a home over the past month. I’m sad to leave this country that has been so good to me and my family. I’m sure I’ll find myself a little disappointed once my flight lands in New York about 26 hours from now (hopefully, but more on that later).

But before I have to deal with any of that baggage, let’s recap the past three days.


My mom, my dad, and I went on a little tour of the area around Kumasi, self-guided this time. There are three different villages on the same main road, each specializing in a particular type of traditional craft. We took a taxi out to the furthest one, Adanwomase, and then took tro-tros (basically rusted public transport vans that are falling apart) back towards Kumasi, stopping at the other villages.

Adanwomase specializes in kente cloth weaving. Every single man in town knows how to weave, so there are weaving stations set up beside every house, each making slightly different designs to sell in their stores on the main street.  These men start as young as 10 years old, so they are truly masters of their craft, effortlessly manipulating the string into complex patterns without a single moment of hesitation. They use a combination of strings, foot pedals, and at least three different spools of fabric to make each strip of cloth. And I still don’t get exactly how it all works. Nevertheless, it’s a true wonder to watch.

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Next, we headed on to the village of Ntonso, which supposedly is the center of adrinka stamping. This process involves special symbols carved from wood that are dipped in dye made from tree bark and pressed onto clothing to make intricate designs. Unfortunately, once we paid for the guided tour (about $3), we were told that there was only one guy who still made the cloth, and he only did it because tourists came around and wanted to see it. There wasn’t much to see and there was little enthusiasm in the craft making, so we left pretty quickly.

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Traditional adrinka (left) and an example of Ghana’s never ending love for our president: Obamadrinka (right).

Our last stop was the small village of Ahwiaa. This village specializes in wood carvings. Because of a funeral occurring in the town that night, many of the carvers were off preparing for the occasion, so there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to watch people carve. But luckily, a few were carving, so we stayed and watched for 20 minutes. It was a little funny to learn that much of the wood they used for carving is imported from Brazil, but I guess Ghana is no stranger to globalization.

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Another tro-tro ride and we were back in Kumasi. We got word that the gold mine in nearby Obuasi was closed to visitors, so we instead decided to head back to Accra a day earlier than originally planned.

Thursday and Friday (today)

Yesterday was mostly spent on a bus. I did long bus ride things like listen to my iPod, read my book (Kiterunner), and look out the window for long stretches of time. I think that particular six hours of my life needs little explanation on this blog. But six hours after we headed out from Kumasi on a nice coach bus (the luxury option of transport at $15), we arrived in Accra, the capital and the home of Kotoka International Airport.

After getting in last night, we stayed at a nice hotel right on the coastline, and then headed off to a different one today that would allow us to hang out for the entire day at their pool for a few bucks. Our flight isn’t until a little after 10pm tonight, and as my mom and I figured out when we stayed in Accra at the beginning of our trip, there’s not much to do in the capital. The museums are disappointing and pricy and there’s not much in the way of tourist attractions. Sitting by a pool was our best option to waste some time before our flight.

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So here I am (see that devilishly handsome guy above? yeah, that’s me), sitting next to a pool, not quite feeling like I’m in Ghana, but instead, like I could be at a nice beach resort anywhere in the world. But it’s important to remember the real Ghana of the last 29 days. The harshness of daily life, the broken down roads, the inspiring amount of construction projects, the unbending spirit of the entrepreneurs I met, and of course, those great Ghanaian smiles.

In an hour or two, we’ll be off to the airport. The stress is building because we’re not quite sure if we are going to get on the airplane. We have standby tickets, and there’s only 8 seats open on the plane. With a little bit of luck, I’ll be sitting on Big Apple tarmac in about a day’s time, but there’s a decent chance I could be hanging out here for a day or two more.

But, despite the uncertainty, here’s my goodbye.

It’s been good Ghana. Maybe I won’t be back here for a while, but I’ll be sure to make it back to Africa soon. There’s no place where life seems so pure and simple as this lowercase “q” of a continent.

Note: I’ll be blogging some reflections on the trip, extra interviews, and random posts that I forgot to put up before retiring this blog for good, so don’t stop coming back just yet. I’ll be sure to let you know when everything is done.

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Kumasi in a day: Ashanti palaces and a never-ending market

The teeming masses traveled beneath, more people going about their daily schedules than I could ever imagine.

Comfort, a local Ghanaian guide, had just brought us up to the top of an unnamed tower overlooking Kejetia market. The view was astounding. On one side, we saw a gigantic crowd of Ghanaians heading towards the market for the start of the day’s trading. On the other side was the market itself, an expanse of metal containers arranged into neat blocks continuing as far as the eye could see.

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The people going to market

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See that blurry brown and silver that stretches beyond in the top middle? That’s more shops and stalls than you could ever possibly imagine.

It was a view we would have never seen had it not been for the guide. The tower was unmarked and we never would have known that people off the street could even ascend its tiny winding steps. The tower gave us a great view of our next objective: a full scale traverse through the winding passages of Kejetia Market, the largest open-air market in West Africa.

So with one final glance, we headed back down to the “trading floor.” With over 10,000 registered shops (yes, they actually pay dues and there’s a big bounded book with the name of each one), you can find any product you could ever dream of somewhere in the market. From clothes irons to wholesale quantities of mouthwash, from imported Moroccan dates to expensive colonial-era trade beads, there’s something for every taste, no matter how discerning or specific.

One of the most fun things to do was seeing all of the craftsmen who work right in the market. There are rows beyond rows of people making all types of traditional Ghanaian cloth as well as custom fitted sandals. Everyone was happy to show us what they were working on, stopping their busy schedules (well, actually some were sleeping) for a few minutes to demonstrate the ins and outs of gluing wooden sandal bottoms to the leather or embroidering ornate designs onto dresses.

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The stalls were interminable, but after about two and half hours (counting the numerous stops at shops), we had finally walked across the market, or as least one route through its intricate maze. And thanks to our guide, even though we could hardly keep our directions straight, we managed to emerge out of the market right where we could catch a taxi to our next destination: the Ashantehene Palace complex.

Saying goodbye to our guide Comfort, we headed on to the former residence of three Ashanti (or Asante) kings. They were the rulers of the Ashanti kingdom and had led the fight against the British colonialists during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The former palace has been converted into a museum (the new one is off limits for obvious reasons, the current king lives there year round). It still contains the refrigerator and TV that the kings used, as well as Madame Tussauds sculpted wax statues of each of the former kings. It’s a little offbeat, but the info is top notch for understanding Ashanti history and culture.

Mini history lesson. The people of the various tribes in the surrounding Ashanti region came together in the late 1600s to create a single Ashanti kingdom under one sovereign. This kingdom eventually expanded its borders past the current auspices of Ghana, but diminished in power with the British invasion. It lost all political power with the creation of the state of Ghana in 1957, but still holds ceremonial power in addition to its economic power over the hundreds of millions of dollars of gold mined in the area.

After the palace, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and were back out for our final activity for the day, a 5 minute tro-tro ride to a brass molding workshop. The man there showed us how everything was made, from rings to elephants. The process is drawn out, complex, and I didn’t understand it fully enough to write it out in detail here, but more simply, they use a mixture of charcoal and wax to create a negative of the desired figure which brass can then be poured into. Very interesting and informative (and free).

And that was the adventure of today. A self-guided village “tour” is probably on the schedule tomorrow, but the gold mine tour for Thursday is in trouble because the mine has apparently doesn’t allow tourists to visit anymore. Too bad for that, but if it happens, we’ll probably just a hop a tro-tro back to Accra and hang out there for an extra day before flying home.

Oh, and there’s a pretty cute, chill cat that hangs around the hotel. He was worthy of a picture.

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Hotel kitty wants to travel in Ghana too.

This part of the trip is fun just because we’re planning it minute-by-minute. One moment we might be heading out on a day trip, and the next we might be going on a long journey to another city. It’s the best way to fully enjoy a trip.

Only a few days left. Let’s see what parting words Ghana has to offer.


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Many goodbyes, and a few hellos: changing the pace in Ghana

First off, I’m sorry for not being able to post for a little bit. The last few days have been hectic, with major traveling and quick changes in hotels and cities taking up all of our time. But that will just make this post teeming with the latest.

So where to begin? Well, on Saturday morning, me and my mom said goodbye to the VEG (Village Exchange Ghana) house and office for the last time. My dad had a Saturday night flight to Accra, so we had to be there by that afternoon to pick him up. We had a nice barbeque on Friday night to celebrate, so I was once more filled up with delicious food. It’s hard to beat the cooking at the VEG house anywhere else in Ghana.

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The spread at dinner.

It was sad to leave Ho. The city became a place of comfort and relaxation, the one place in Ghana where we actually knew where we were going and could navigate with ease. The people were amazingly friendly and used to volunteers, so we were never hassled and always welcomed with open arms. As we venture into the more tourist-y parts of Ghana, that feeling will be sorely missed. Goodbye to Kofi, Felix, Emily, Shoko, Albert, Jennette, and the rest of the great people who work at VEG. It couldn’t have been a better volunteer experience.

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Kofi, me, and Felix

Christiane, the founder of VEG, graciously offered to drive us to Accra to pick up my dad, so we piled into the VEG pickup truck one last time for the three hour journey from Ho. Two other volunteers, David and Ferran (chill), decided to go to a beach resort outside of Accra for the weekend, so they tagged along. My dad wasn’t arriving until 9:15 pm, so we decided it would be perfect to have lunch with the guys at their resort before heading back to the city. However, the quoted 30 minute drive from Accra to Big Milly’s Beach Resort was a farce. Caught up in the infamous Accra traffic (a single two lane highway leading into a city of millions), it took two hours to go 20 kilometers (about 12 mph average).

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Enterprising sellers taking advantage of the deadlock

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Cows didn’t help the traffic either.

We finally weeded through the traffic and a bumpy dirt road. A relaxing lunch right on the beach awaited, much appreciated after five hours in the car. Our nice jaunt to the coast at an end, we said some more goodbyes to Ferran and David and Christiane drove us back to Accra. We helped deliver some cloth products created by the Ghanaian women at VEG to Global Mamas, an organization that resells beads and batik to stores and wholesalers in the West.

And then it was time to head to the airport. We waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, but finally my dad emerged into the arrivals hall. He looked exhausted from 24 hours of traveling (house in New York to Accra airport), but excited to be on vacation in an exotic country. Christiane drove us to our Accra hotel, and then it was time for our last goodbye to VEG. We handed over the many donations my dad had brought from home (two bags of children’s books, breast health booklets, and other supplies) and waved off our amazing host.

Sunday morning was an early one. We hit the ground running, finding our way to Accra’s Kaneshie Market to catch a tro-tro (public transport van) to Cape Coast. The city and its neighbor Elmina are home to two “castles” (more like forts) that played key roles in the slave and gold trades with Europeans. The ride to Cape Coast took less than two hours on the best road I’ve seen yet in Ghana. Due to our early start, we were able to see both castles and explore the historic town of Elmina a little bit. Then we retreated to a basic beach resort hotel (this time with floors) for some rest and relaxation by the roaring waters of the Atlantic.

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The room of no return and the confinement cells for misbehaving slaves. Nobody ever came back from either.

On Monday (this) morning, there were fishermen casting their nets and groups of men pulling in their catches. It’s hard work to pull in the fish, but the result is tremendous, and everyone who helps pull gets a little piece of the catch.

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But we didn’t have time to waste. We were just as quickly out of Cape Coast and up north to Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region. A three hour tro-tro and 20 minute taxi ride later and we were at the Four Village Inn just outside of the city center. The Ashanti region is the cultural center of Ghana and Kumasi is the perfect base for day trips out to the sights. For the afternoon, we stopped by the Ashanti National Cultural Center, visited a small museum about the Ashanti kingdom (which still exists, but only exerts ceremonial and economic power), and got lost trying to find a magical Ashanti sword (who knew they put major tourist landmarks in the middle of hospital grounds?).

Unfortunately, Kumasi is better known as a base to travel to other places and not as center of things to see. So we headed back to the hotel for some R&R. We are staying in a tiny, four room bed and breakfast that the Ghanaian-Canadian owners converted from its former role as their Kumasi home. It is quaint, clean, and the Canadian man who runs it gave helped us book tours for the rest of our week in Kumasi. Plus, we were promised hot showers, our first in over three weeks.

The plan for the rest of the week is as follows:

  • Tuesday: guided tour of Kejetia market, the biggest open-air market in West Africa; a visit to a brass workshop; and we might swing by the old  Ashantihene (Ashanti king) palace if we have time
  • Wednesday: taking a car around to a few of the surrounding craft villages where items like kente weaved cloth and handmade pottery are made
  • Thursday: possibly a gold mine tour (we’ll see about that one)

It should be another packed few days, but we’ll be sure to see a ton before we have to fly back home on Friday night.

Everything has to change sometime. Hopefully the Ashanti region can live up to the fun times we had in Volta.

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21 hours in Helekpe

It takes a village to do a lot of things. I think I can add “give a whole other dimension to your trip to Ghana” to that list now.

I just returned from Adaklu Helekpe where my mom, our fellow volunteer Harriet, and I spent the night. Helekpe is located just a 20 minute drive outside of Ho. We planned to arrive Thursday afternoon and leave the following/this morning, so first I was able to go around with Kofi and Felix (the social mission and credit officers) to collect loan repayments from the three villages.

I experienced the terrific power of Ghanaian rain when it almost canceled our meeting in Adaklu Ahunda (about an hour from Helekpe, but in the same tribal area). Our usual outdoor meeting place was soaked, so everyone quickly moved to a small porch outside someone’s home.

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Kofi with the microfinance partners from Adaklu Ahunda.

It was cramped, but the show must go on. Everyone back at the office would not be pleased if we weren’t able to collect repayments just because of a little bit of rain.

But we finished up our repayments with time to spare, so I headed back to Helekpe where we had earlier dropped off my mom and Harriet. Before Kofi and Felix left, I had Kofi help me with another interview with a Helekpe microfinance partner (borrower) named Etonam Darkey. I’ll be posting that one up soon, so stay tuned.

When I arrived, I was excited to find out that Worlanyo, the leader for the microfinance group in Helekpe, would be taking us around. Throughout our visit, he had amazing insights about village life and showed us examples in real life when he could. We were able to see a woman making fufu, a doughy mixture of smashed cassava and corn, as well as a man and a girl grinding dried corn kernels into corn meal.

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Making fufu, the traditional way.

After touring the village a little bit, it was time for soccer (well, football in Ghana) practice. Worlanyo helps coach the under 14 and under 17 teams from the village, so we tagged along and watched them play. Even at a young age, these kids were amazing sportsmen, precisely cutting the lines of the defense, deftly scoring on the small blocks of concrete that marked the goals.

They played non-stop for an hour and a half, but we got a little bit bored of watching after an hour and went to grab some drinks and settle down at the guesthouse. I wanted to support one of the microfinance partners’ businesses with our drink order, so we stopped by Etonam Darkey’s little drink store affectionately called “Peace and Love Spot.” Definitely my favorite shop name in Ghana so far.

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While we had our drinks, a bunch of the neighborhood kids came by to meet us. They knew a limited amount of English, but they were able to ask us our names. They also kept saying the word “dawing,” which we didn’t quite understand at first. We finally realized that they meant “drawing,” so we got out a notepad and a few pens. The chance to draw on paper enthralled them and kept them entertained for a while. We even had them trace their hands with the pens to make chickens (kids in Ghana don’t know what turkeys are, but I guess kids anywhere love the idea of making animals from their fingers).

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Love that Stanford shirt!

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A hand-traced chicken (and a banana? Didn’t teach them that one)

Once the kids went back home, the rest of the night was pretty quiet. We had a nice dinner of banku (corn meal dough) with fish, okra, and mushroom out on what seemed to be the only porch with a light (the villagers treated us well). There was supposed to be a little drumming demonstration, but the skies opened up into a light drizzle, so that activity was unfortunately canceled.

The village is eerily quiet at night, unlike Ho with the loud music and preaching from local churches that we regularly hear every night. Just to sleep in silence was a welcome change.

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Our guesthouse room.

Not that the silence lasts very long. Everyone in the village awakes at the crack of dawn. As soon as the sun comes up over the horizon, the women are carrying water back and forth and the kids are screaming and running around. Even though we got up at the relatively early hour (for me, at least) of 7:45am, the children we had played with the previous night were waiting right outside our door, ready for more “dawing.”

After an abbreviated breakfast, we said so long to the village, wanting to do a little work in the office before summer camp started in the afternoon. The tro-tro ride back was an experience for sure. The picture explains it all. Twelve people smushed together in the back of a car, goods for the market sitting on top, and a bumpy road. It just made the ride that much more fun.

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I have to be honest. I was a little nervous coming into our village visit. It was hard to know what to expect, and I didn’t want to feel like I was intruding into someone’s daily life. But once we arrived, Worlanyo and the other people in the village made us feel at home. Ghanaian people are so welcoming in that way. They put you at ease, feed you well, and make sure you’re comfortable in their home.

Ho, sorry you’re great, but Helekpe just stole a little piece of my heart.

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A not so traditional summer camp


One of the things that I was disappointed me this summer was that I was going to miss a lot of the typical teenage things. I would have to skip over activities like going to the beach with friends, meeting new people, or going to camp.

Well, I’ve been able to prove that assumption completely false. Actually, I’ve managed to do all of those things, but maybe just in a little bit different form. I went on a beach adventure with a some new volunteer friends from around the world, met more than 100 new people, both Ghanaians and fellow foreigners, and now I’m going to camp, the Ghanaian way.

Let’s get down to what this post is really about. Most teenagers in Ghana have nothing productive to do in the summer. Summer vacation only lasts for the month of August, so there is not much time to organize something complex.There are not enough jobs available in Ghana for the adults, so most teens don’t have a chance at getting traditional employment. Some parents pay to send their children to school during the summer for a month-long enrichment program, but often the teachers simply don’t show up and the kids don’t learn anything. There are a few kids who will help out with their parents’ businesses, but that hardly takes up all of their time.

So what’s a bored Ghanaian teenager to do?

That’s what our group of volunteers asked. And so we decided to create a month-long summer camp program. VEG has been trying to project itself as a safe place for kids to come and hang out. The organization has a whole program dedicated to sexual and reproductive health, but if kids don’t trust or know about VEG, then it is hard to educate them.

The idea for the summer camp was to get kids comfortable coming to VEG so that during the school year, they will be more likely to come for health classes and to check out books from the VEG Library.

Right before the school year ended in late July, we sent out sign up sheets to various local schools around the area. We had an overwhelming response, with over 50 kids from ages 12-18 signed up to come. Over two weeks, I helped design how the program would run. Because of the large number of kids and the limited number of volunteers, everyone would need to be split up into groups. Since three volunteers (including myself) are away on Thursdays collecting repayments for the microfinance project, we decided to split the children up in four groups, one each for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Each group comes only once a week on their specified day from 2pm to 4:30pm. This allows kids in summer school programs to attend in addition to those without any summer activities at all (and lets us get some work done in the morning; I’m not volunteering just for the summer camp after all).

The first thing we do is bring everyone out to a nearby field for some exercise. Before playing the sport of the week, we have everyone pick up garbage from the field to teach the kids to respect their environment and keep the earth clean. Everyone picks up a shopping bag worth of garbage, even the volunteers. Then it’s off to playtime.

This week is our first week of camp and we are playing frisbee. Most Ghanaians have never heard of the sport or seen a frisbee disc, so we were expecting to have a hard time teaching the basic skills. We were totally wrong.


These kids, none who had ever touched a frisbee in their life, were able to throw and catch easily within 20 seconds. Every single one of them. It was amazing to see how naturally athletic these kids were, able to pick up a new sport so quickly. All it took was one demonstration of the technique for throwing a frisbee and they were tossing it back and forth like pros.077114121

Even more amazing was the fact that we were able to teach them how to play Ultimate Frisbee and get a successful game going. It took a little translation from one of our Ewe speaking helpers, but once they understood the rules, everyone really got into the game. They were picking apart the defense and throwing between opponents, knocking and intercepting frisbees, and scoring plenty. At one point on Tuesday, an Australian volunteer with another organization walked by the field and came over to talk to us, flabbergasted to see a game of Ultimate Frisbee being played in Ghana. He’s supposed to come down and play with us on Friday now. Making friends through frisbee in Ghana: not the typical story, but I’ll take it.

Once we run them around for about an hour, we return to the VEG office where a snack and an indoor activity awaits. This week, we are making homemade Play-doh out of flour, salt, oil, corn starch, and a little bit of food dye. The kids are delighted to squish their fingers in the bowl as they mix the ingredients into a shapeable clay.


After making the dough, they have some time to make something out of the clay. The kids are impressive artists, making a bunch of great snails, fires, houses, and everything in between. At the end, they get to take home a small bit of each color so they can play with it at home. It’s exciting to see them all carrying around zip-loc bags with a little bit each of red, yellow, and blue Play-doh165

Tuesday’s group with their Play-doh

This summer camp has been the most fun activity I have done since coming to Ghana. The smiles on these kids faces is priceless and makes it impossible not to enjoy yourself. The energy they bring everyday is making my last week here at VEG pass extremely quickly. I’m going to miss those kids, but I can’t wait to hear how the rest of the camp goes.

One more session on Friday. If the past three days are a marker, I know Friday will be amazing.

Tomorrow I’ll be going to collect repayments for the microfinance project, and then I’ll have the opportunity to stay overnight in the village of Adaklu Helekpe, one of the places where we give out loans.

Excitement, smiles, and Ghanaian kids is one of the best recipes for happiness.

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Weekend Take Two: Adaklu Mountain, monkeying around, and hiking to waterfalls

Culture smulture. Travelling isn’t about museums and tour guides; it’s about getting outside and breaking a little sweat.

This past weekend, I did just that. Joined by three fellow volunteers (one each from Spain, Denmark, and the U.K.), one Ghanaian girl who works at VEG, and of course, my mom, I climbed the second tallest mountain in Ghana, fed monkeys some bananas and had them jump on top of me, and hiked to the base of the tallest waterfall in West Africa. You know, the normal stuff.

On Saturday, we climbed Adaklu Mountain, which at 2,700 feet is the second tallest mountain in all of Ghana. The climb starts from a little village about a 20 minute “tro-tro” ride outside of the city of Ho. July 21-24 072

Inside a tr0-tro.

Tro-tro’s are the public transportation for Ghana. They are 12 person vans (in theory, but often more people squeeze in) without a set departure schedule. They just leave for their destination whenever the van fills up (it’s key to get in a almost full one if you don’t want to be stuck at the station for 45 minutes). The station is a crazy mass of vans, each one seeming to try to leave the parking lot in at the same time, all going in a different direction. It’s traffic mayhem at its worst. As soon as a “yevu” (white person) walks into the station, they are immediately attacked with calls of “Where you go!? Where you want go!?” With a little slick bargaining (and the help of Wyram, our Ghanaian, Ewe speaking friend), we finally found a tro-tro for one Ghana cedi per person (about $0.66 for a 20 minute ride, a deal for sure).

The starting point is the village of Adaklu Helekpe (all of the surrounding villages are named after the mountain), which also happens to be one of the villages that we work with on our microfinance project. Edith Worwornyo, one of the borrowers I wrote about previously, used to be a mountain guide, so the first thing we did was find her. She graciously helped us negotiate a fair deal with some other tour guides, and then we were off!

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In front of the mountain before the hike.

At first glance, our two local guides looked pretty mature, but we soon found out that they were 13 and 14, respectively. Even more impressive was their lack of gear. They both wore baggy shorts with their underwear hanging out (not just an American thing) and simple flip-flops. And they could still run up and down the mountain faster than you could imagine.

The mountain hike took about 2 and half hours to ascend at our very relaxed pace. We made sure to take pictures at every opportunity and try to fully enjoy ourselves despite the tough terrain. The climb involved several sections lined with ropes to help counteract the slippery mud and rocks that line the trail. There was also a cave halfway up,  which provided a nice rest area for snacking and rehydrating.

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The view at the top was astounding. It was easy to see for miles in every direction. We were even able to see across the border into Togo, towering mountains lining the divide between nations.

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My mom and me at the top.

The descent was much easier, giving us ample time to find a tro-tro and head back to Ho and the VEG house, and all in time for dinner. After a few games of Uno, Egyptian Rat War, and Poker, it was time for bed. It was easy to sleep after the long day, but the next was even longer.

On Sunday, we all woke up to another day of lengthy travel. We had previously arranged for a driver and car to meet us at 8am and drive us around for the day. Everyone, minus a busy Wyram, piled into the mini-van, the most spacious car ride I had since arriving in Ghana (four people in the back of a taxi is a common practice).

George, our fearless and knowledgeable driver, and also a friend of Wyram’s mother, quickly got us on the road, and again we were off for more adventure.

The first stop was the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary. With the popularization of Christianity in Ghana in the mid-1900s, animistic beliefs were thrown aside, allowing the killing of monkeys and destruction of monkey habitat to begin. At Tafi Atome, a rare species of monkey called the “Mona” monkeys was tettering on extinction. Luckily, a Peace Corp volunteer intervened in the late 1980’s. He established the sanctuary that we know today, a place where hunting and foresting is outlawed and the monkeys are free to live in peace.

After picking up some bananas on the road, we headed into the sanctuary. There we picked up a local guide who led us into the forest. It only took a few monkey calls from our guide for five monkeys to descend from the treetops, ready to meet us (well….. they were probably more interested in the bananas we were holding).  With bananas held tight, we started to hold out our bananas to the monkeys. The monkeys have become very tame after countless tourist visits, so it is easy to feed them. They reach out from their perches in the trees, carefully peel the banana in your hand, and take a bite. Some even jumped onto our arms and fed from there.

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See, I wasn’t kidding.

The monkeys were obviously hungry because we ran out of bananas within ten minutes. It was hard to leave the monkey sanctuary after the great fun we had, but the waterfalls were awaiting us. George hurried us along, and we were back in the van for the hour and half drive to the falls.

The Wli (pronounced “vlee”) Waterfalls contain the highest drop of water in West Africa. The pounding falls can be seen from miles away, but to truly experience their beauty, you have to get right up close and personal.

After a quick lunch within view of the falls, we headed down to the “Visitor’s Center” (a term I use extremely loosely). The first activity was meeting with the 26 year old local chief, who conveniently happens to double as the fee collector for all those looking to visit the falls. There are two different falls that are available to visit, the lower and upper falls. The upper one is much taller, but involves a quoted “3 to 4 hour hike.” The chief didn’t want us to go up to the upper falls because he said we arrived too late to get back before dark, but we were confident in our ability to beat the estimated time, and took off regardless.

With the help of our tour guide (mandatory for every foreigner), we hiked up to the upper falls at triple-speed. After 45 minutes, we were at the bottom of the upper falls, nice and sweaty; perfect conditions for a swim. And swim we did.

The immense amount of water from the falls creates a perpetual gust of wind that blows you backwards. Fighting the wind and the current, we waded into the pool, eventually finding a seat on a couple of rocks right under the shower of the water. The water fell so hard that it almost felt like mini hailstones, a welcome massage from mother nature. I’ll post an update with more pictures later. My camera isn’t waterproof, but my Danish friend David’s is, so I’ll be sure to steal some of his pictures.

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The upper falls (left) and the lower falls (right).

With our sojourn into the falls complete, we hiked (more like ran) back down to the entrance. Elapsed time: 40 minutes back, 1 hour 25 minutes total hiking time (3 to 4 hours?? yeah right).

And with that, our weekend adventures were over. Only a three hour nighttime car ride with George, and we were back in Ho, ready for another work week.

Though the weekend tired me out more than a regular work day, it was great to see more of this beautiful nation. With less than two weeks before I leave Ghana for good, this past weekend reminded me of how lucky I am to be able to have an adventure like this. Ghana is truly one of a kind.

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