Sunday, January 12, 2014

Weep Not, Child.

Catherine McKelvey
The trip to Ghana was just underway.  In fact, it was only day two.  Myself, alongside two of my colleagues, Hannah and Mackenzie, were headed to the Weep Not Child Foundation for our (internship) volunteer opportunity.  We were all excited to embark on such an exciting and meaningful journey, as we had all chosen an NGO, particularly one dealing with orphans, as our first choice for an internship during our study abroad trip to Ghana. 

On the drive, we spoke of our expectations and excitement to meet the children, but not our underlying nervousness.  To be quite honest, I was unsure as to what to expect of the Weep Not Child Foundation.  I liked having not the slightest clue what kind of adventure lie ahead of me, however.  I do recall, quite vividly, the harshness and roughness of the drive to the orphanage.  My goodness, was it a bumpy one!  We drove far out of the city of Accra, and deep into the Eastern Region of Ghana.  We watched intently and snapped photographs as the scenery transformed from buildings and massive crowds of people, to lush greenery, tall hills, and palms for miles. 

Even the people in the Eastern Region, albeit observing from inside the vehicle, seemed different from those we had previously seen in the city.  The whole atmosphere was different; I could sense a general change of attitude in the air.  People seemed more laid back, and the villages we passed through were ultimately different from living areas we had seen in Accra.  In my opinion, it was like inhaling a breath of fresh air.  We were observing a completely new way of life.  This way of life was unlike that we had seen in Accra, and certainly unlike that of the United States. 

Individuals of these villages lived in sturdily built grass, mud, and bamboo structures, and children frolicked around happily.  Women seemed to run the majority of the small business stands, and older children seemed to be helping the women sell goods, food, and water.  Goats, chickens, dogs, and cats ran around freely, eating whatever they pleased; it was a great sight to see.  Our vehicle, as it passed through the villages, stuck out like a sore thumb (especially with three "obruni" girls en route.)  People yelled at us as we passed, “Obruni!  Obruni!”  Young children stared aimlessly with their mouths opened wide, as if they had never before seen something so strange.  For the first time, the reality of being a complete foreigner and a minority slapped me straight across the face.  I was different; we were different.  They knew it.  I knew it.  We all knew it.  

After about an hour and 30 minutes of traveling though the eastern region of Ghana, we finally arrived at the Weep Not Child Foundation. Which, by the way, was extremely difficult to locate. I've got to give drivers in Ghana, and Ghanians in general, so much credit for knowing the land so well! I couldn't believe how well hidden so many locations were! Not a single road sign or indicator in sight, yet our driver knew where he was going! I was seriously impressed, as without a GPS in my vehicle, I'd be lost on a daily basis. Anyhow, we had finally reached our destination, and were happy to have done so.

Upon arrival, we noticed that the orphanages sign was simple, yet warm and inviting. The site itself was completely gated by a large concrete wall, and as we entered, we finally feasted our eyes on the sight we had longed to see for some time now. It was absolutely beautiful, but in the most simple way possible. Simplicity is bliss, I thought to myself as we stepped out of the vehicle.

First and foremost, we were invited to sit and have a chat with the madam and founder of the orphanage. She was kind and offered us a glass of water as a symbol of her welcoming us into her home. The children sat quietly and so well behaved in small chairs as we spoke with the madam. She was interested to know the reasons behind our visit, and we were curious about her as well.

Our questions were both welcomed and well received. We inquired of her the reasons as to why she opened the orphanage, how she performed/maintained such a task, and various questions as well. Madam explained that as a child, her and her siblings were taught that they should avoid schooling and stay home to help their mother. All of her siblings, aside from herself, abandoned her mother, and she was left with no choice but to support her mother until death. The madam did just that.

Also explained to us, was the fact that the madam witnessed so much poverty and estranged children in her village and those surrounding villages as a child, she felt compelled to do something about it in her lifetime. It was then that we learned the devastating reality of the entire situation.

We were told that it is very common for Ghanaian orphans to be ostracized, and even killed, due to superstitions and myths. The madam explained that it is very common for individuals to believe that orphans are cursed, as many children without parents are those whose mothers had passed away during child birth. Thus, many people believe that orphans should be excommunicated and, oftentimes, killed.

We were shocked to learn that it is extremely common for orphans to be taken to nearby rivers and lakes, where they are drowned. The madam even admitted that the simple act of collecting water from the local river is impossible, as villagers are worried that the orphans will taint and curse the water.

We cried as we peered over to the beautifully innocent faces staring back at us, thinking only of what their lives might be without the help of the madam. It was in this moment that I realized my selfish preconceived notions about volunteering at an orphanage were entirely misguided. I thought our presence would change the lives of the children. Little did I know, their presence would impact my life from that moment forward.

The remainder of the day was filled with classes (English, math, and a little creative art), general play time, and of course, futbol. I was so impressed with their vast knowledge of all the subject matter I taught! Six, seven, eight and nine year olds were so, so smart! They were doing math equations I wasn't able to do until the 4th or 5th grade. They were also bilingual, and spoke English very well. Their drawings were very nicely done, and they were so excited to see that I could draw the flag of Ghana! They cheered for me and some even ran up to the black board to hug me. It was awesome! 

After classes were dismissed, we then began an afternoon of playing futbol, bonding, and we even had the opportunity to help the children welcome an extremely generous donor. He brought an immense amount of food, clothing, drinks and sweets of all kinds. The children ate every last bite of their lunches, and proceeded to trade those items which were not eaten by other children. Their system of sharing touched and warmed my heart. It was so reassuring to see children sharing rather than complaining and fighting. They even made sure the young babies were well fed, oftentimes giving them the majority of their leftovers. They were kind. They were generous. They were loving, and they showed unfathomable compassion.

As a whole, our first day at Weep Not Child foundation couldn't have been any better. My checks and jaw hurt from smiling so much. I don't think I've smiled that much in my entire life! I'll never forget the joy these children brought into my life. To date, volunteering at the orphanage was the most genuine and meaningful thing I've ever done. My paradigm was shifted, I had a new found appreciation and outlook on life. Even thinking of their smiling faces, truly smiling faces, brings a smile to mine as well. The rest of our experiences at Weep Not were better than those times before. I loved every single second of it, and am so unbelievably grateful to have been given the opportunity to visit such a wonderful place.

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