Friday, October 4, 2019

White Woman

The 2019-2020 academic school year has begun.  Girls trickled in slowly at first, but most all of our returning students are now on campus.  We have 16 new Form 1 students so far, though the list of those who signed up to come was over 40.  I have been told it is common in Ghana for first years to arrive up to a month after the start of the year.

 I will be teaching the Form 1 Food and Nutrition class again this year.  Out of the 16 students, only two are Home Science Program students, so my class is currently very small.  We are expecting quite a few more in the next two weeks.  Pray they are able to find the money to come.  Being a Catholic school, it is a fee-paying institution, and many families find it very difficult to come up with the necessary money to send their daughters to senior high school.  Education of the girl-child in northern Ghana is still lagging behind other parts of the country. 

Along with teaching the one class, I am also the school Secretary and the school Storekeeper.  These three functions keep me very busy.  Outside of the school, the Headmistress is the President of the Council of Catholic Women Association, a world-wide organization of Catholic Women.  She has talked Karen and I into joining and helping her with a big Diocesan-wide event coming up at the end of November.  More news on that at a later time.

It is currently October, both the Month of the Rosary and this year, the Extraordinary Month for Missions.  We started October 1st, the Feast Day of St. Therese of Lisieux – (The Little Flower – St. Therese of the Child Jesus), co-patron of Missionaries along with St. Francis Xavier, with a Mission Rosary and Mass at the Grotto in Damongo.  It was a beautiful way to start the month.

My long-time friend, Augie Ambe, came upon my blog via Facebook last month and spent three hours going through all of posts from the beginning, reading, watching videos and looking at the many pictures.   He enjoyed it and asked me to continue, however, he also had a question for me.  “How does it really feel “standing out” as a white woman in Africa?”

Those of you who know Augie, are not surprised he would delve in and ask this question.
First, for me, I have been a part of a large Cameroonian community in the Twin Cities for many years.  It was not unusual for me to attend a large Cameroonian gathering, and be the only white person (or one of just a couple white people) at the event.  Therefore, it is not an altogether a new experience for me to be a white woman standing out amongst Africans.

What is different for me, is that in Africa, it is an every-day, all day occurrence.  There is no way around it or out of it.  Here I am definitely a minority, I am an “outsider” and it is readily apparent by simply glancing at me.

The question really poses two – even three issues – being WHITE in Africa, being a WOMAN in Africa, and being a “WHITE WOMAN” in Africa.  Then there is the whole “STANDING OUT” idea.   They are all very interesting topics.

I oftentimes forget that I am WHITE in Africa.  It is not really something I think a lot about. I oftentimes forget I am a different color than those around me.

Standing out by being WHITE in Africa mainly comes to my attention when young children are around.  Their expressions range from big smiles, waiving and wanting to touch me, to looks of confusion, not really knowing who this odd-looking person is.  The fact that people are noticing me – brings the fact I am white back to my attention.  I am typically in the SAGISS compound during the week, so my whiteness really plays little into my thoughts.  It is on weekends when I go to town to Saturday market and Mass on Sundays that my “whiteness” come into play.

I have never felt discriminated against or felt treated badly because I am white in the land of the black man.  The people of Ghana, most specifically those at SAGISS, and those in the Diocese of Damongo have treated me with honor, respect and kindness.    Sometimes, I have felt uncomfortable by the fact that I was being placed in a position of honor when I really did nothing to deserve it, other than come to live amongst them to spread the love of Jesus Christ to them through relationship with them.

There are, however, other things that do make me uncomfortable or self-conscious.  Those things are LANGUAGE barriers and RELIGIOUS differences.  These two things play a much larger role in how it feels to “stand out” in Africa.

Living in Northern Ghana, there are a large number of people who do not speak English.  We are in Gonja land, and most people I meet in the market or even the day laborers at SAGISS were not taught English when they were growing up.  Language is a barrier for me.  I have never learned a second language, and at my age, I admit it is both a struggle and not something I originally wanted to do.  I liked the fact Ghana was English speaking, just for that reason.  But a nation having English as one of its official languages, unfortunately does not mean everyone speaks it.

Every time I greet one of the day laborers, cooks, or security men at SAGISS, I struggle to communicate effectively and it reminds me I am an alien in this land.  Every time I go to market to buy fruit, vegetables, bread, etc., it is a reminder that I am different and “stand out”. 
I live in Damongo – which is Gonja land, yet the Diocese of Damongo is heavily populated with Dagaari people, from the Upper West Region of Ghana.  Then you can add in the Fra-Fra and the Fulani and multiple other tribes and you have a myriad of possible tribal languages to deal with.  It makes my head spin, so I just smile sweetly and say ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Hello’ or give a big wave.

Northern Ghana is also predominantly Muslim.  There are mosques everywhere – every little village has a mosque.  With the Muslim culture, come some beliefs regarding how men and women relate to one another that are very different from our Western ways. (For that matter, many of the Ghanaian traditions are very different than Western ways as well – in relation to male/female equality.)  As a white woman in northern Ghana, I need to learn these beliefs and tradition to try and avoid unknowingly offending people.  These are the more difficult things that remind me I am different from everyone else.

I have been in Ghana for 8 months and so far, I feel very welcomed by most.  I have not felt discriminated against, but sometimes I wonder if people take advantage of me in the market because I am from the West and they believe that means I have money, so they raise the price for me.  Nothing at the market has a price on it, you ask what it costs and either pay it or try to bargain with them.  I have bargained a couple times, but usually just pay the stated price.
So how does it feel “standing out” being a “white woman” in Africa?

“Standing out” makes me aware of the fact of how very important it is that I must represent Jesus Christ, Christianity and the Catholic Church with actions that are kind, generous and responsible, with honesty, integrity and courage, with thoughtfulness and peaceful, loving intentions.
The adventure continues… God continues to work on me…transforming me……...

Friday, August 30, 2019

Summer Adventures

I am back to share some of my adventures from the past two months.

As the academic years started winding down, we had one week full of cooking practicals.  The cooking was done in traditional kitchen setting for a couple reasons:  first and foremost, that is the method they will use for their cooking finals for the WASSCE exams at the end of their third year, and secondly, we have no electricity or running water in the practical room.  I know nothing about cooking with charcoal on a coal pot!  I didn’t know how to cook the traditional dishes -  I hadn’t even tasted most of them! How could I run these practicals?   Therefore, I had to enlist a couple other teachers to help us out.  Indeed, the girls all knew much more than I did.  They were teaching me instead of me teaching them!  In the end, everyone enjoyed the experience and we all learned something.  Many of the meals I enjoyed, though there are a few items that will take some getting used to.

One day we were shopping at the big outdoor market and I decided I wanted some material to have a Ghanaian dress made for me.   As it turned out, I was having so much trouble deciding which material to buy, I ended up buying four different pieces of material.  I now have plenty of Ghanaian dresses to supplement my wardrobe. 
July also marked the month that Karen, my co-missionary here, celebrated a birthday.  As it turned out, the Matron (head of the kitchen) of SAGISS, Sister Agnes’s birthday is on the same day.  We celebrated by inviting a few friends over for dinner and drinks.  We had a good time entertaining.  Oh, there was just one side issue.  As I was cooking, using some fresh red pepper, it was very hot in the kitchen, so I used a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off, some pepper seeds must have gotten on the hanky, because immediately my lips started burning, I could feel them swelling, my face started turning a red color.  My face became very hot.  It started working its way up my face and around my neck.  I ran to my room and took a couple benedryl  They seemed to stop the swelling and progression, but it took 24 hours before I was feeling fine.  I can tell you, I will NOT be cooking with those peppers anymore

 A week later, was the end of the academic year.  All of the girls left for home for 7 weeks until the new academic year starts on September 13th.  Sadly, it also marked the end of Mary’s two-year Peace Corps volunteer mission.  Mary was our next-door neighbor and my mentor when it came to teaching at SAGISS and getting along in Damongo.   She shared what she had learned the prior 18 months, keys about the Ghanaian education system, how they taught at the school, where to buy necessities in Damongo and Tamale, how to take public transportation, etc.   She was an invaluable source of information and comfort to me.  Mary is from New Mexico and is a retired college professor with a Ph. D. in Biology.  I will miss her. 

One of my co-teachers, Adam, is a Muslim and he was married in early August.  Karen, Sister Juliana and I traveled to Tamale via public transportation to attend the wedding festivities.  It was my first Muslim wedding.  We arrived at the home of his parents where all the men were sitting outside under tents.  No women in sight, other than those of us from the school.  We sat out with the men for a while and visited and took some pictures, eventually meeting his Mother and sister.  He then took us on a walk down the street for maybe 6-7 blocks where we came to the house of the bride’s parents.  Here, we saw many women outside, whom we greeted.  We were then led to a small room where the bride was sitting, where we met her and were able to have pictures taken with the couple.  We then returned to the groom’s place and were brought into the courtyard, where all the women on the groom’s side were sitting.  We greeted them, then were taken in a room where we ate and presented our gifts to the groom.  The bride’s family will bring her to the groom’ s family in the early evening, even though the ceremony took place in the mosque with a few family members earlier that morning.

The past two weeks have been spent in Tamale at a place referred to as TICCS – Tamale Institute of  Cross-Cultural Studies.  It is run by the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) and has programs to help missionaries and foreign seminarians and others coming to Ghana to live for a period of time, to understand the culture and Ghanaian traditions so that we can adjust and become integrated into their society.  It has been an eye-opening experience. We have learned some do’s and don’ts.  Karen and I, both being left-handed naturally, find a few things very difficult as use of the left hand in Ghana is looked down upon.  We are trying to be sensitive to their beliefs, but often have to remind each other – “use the other hand!!!!”.

The setting at TICCS is very beautiful and peaceful, with a variety of plants, flowers and trees.  Our class includes six seminarians two each from Kenya, Togo and Dem. Rep. of Congo, Karen and myself.
We visited a couple industries:  a water purification and bottling plant (water sachets) and a shea butter producing plant.  We have shea trees on campus at SAGISS and the girls love to eat them.  However, the pit is used to make the shea butter.   It is a very interesting and time intensive process.  The plant we toured allows women who have gathered shea nuts to bring them in and pay for the supplies they use  to process the butter and assist in selling it to provide income for their families.

Additional sensitive areas which we in the West eschew, are the Ghanaian beliefs in use of Diviners (African Traditional Religion) and the use of witch-craft.  One afternoon, we visited a Diviner.  It is a practice/calling, passed down from one family member to another. One must be chosen to be a diviner.  Not just anyone can choose to do it.  The diviner we visited is a teacher in his profession, but is a diviner as well.  He explained the process of how he was chosen to be the diviner; he showed us the special artifacts used in the divination process (which are also handed down through the family), and generally what they might mean.  We were given a chance to speak with him individually, but most of us, including myself, chose not to.

The belief in Witch-craft in Ghana, especially in the northern villages, can be very damaging to the women who are accused of practicing it.  In these villages, everything that might be negative in a person’s life, must have a cause.  If someone falls sick, they blame it on the witch-craft of another.  If someone dies, someone else must have used witch-craft to cause it. We in the West look to science to explain certain illnesses or deaths.  Or maybe, the bad thing is an “Act of God”.  Unfortunately, in these villages, there is typically an older woman who is accused of witch-craft.  Once one is accused, they run from the village in fear of having their life taken.  They are often threatened by beatings if they deny the accusations.
Ghana, I believe, is the only country that has some “witch camps”.  These are areas set aside for these women who are banished from their communities to live in some type of peace and safety.  We drove 3 hours to a town which allows these women to live there.  They come from a number of villages in the area.  Once we parked our car, we walked through some maize (corn) fields, through many  muddy puddles down a small path to where this “witch camp” existed. (I apologize for the picture where it looks like I was overly concerned that my dress not get wet!  Not too modest!  When I saw that picture I roared with laughter!  Hilarious!) 

Father Fanuel, who heads TICCS, was once the pastor of the Catholic Church Parish in the town and he worked hard at providing some better living condition for the women:  a bore-hole for water, latrines, solar lighting, more huts for housing.  They still struggle for their daily food, but it was amazing how well they lived together in community.

We were shown around their community and met and talked with a group of women through an interpreter as most did not speak English.  I asked what they did for entertainment/fun/ to find joy and they responded that they pray and sing together. A couple of the women proudly showed us the rosaries they had hanging from their necks.  Before we left, I asked if they would be willing to sing for us, which they did.  Singing and dancing go together, so we joined in the dancing with them.  It was a very emotional visit, one I won’t forget.  As I reflected on the situation these women were living through, it hit me that they have had to give up their lives as they knew it.  They had accepted their plight, even though being wrongly accused.  They were praying to find joy.  They are living their purgatory here on earth.

The information I have garnered from both the classes and the experiences provided by TICCS is very enlightening and has helped me understand some of the traditional practices that we in the West find very unusual.  I hope that now when I go back to Damongo and SAGISS, I will have a new perspective that will help me in forming my relationships with the people I encounter.

The adventure continues…….

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Rainy Season and Other Events

Greetings family and friends!  I apologize for the bit of delay in writing.  Somehow, there always seems to be something happening here at SAGISS to keep me busy.

The rainy season is in swing and we finally have some beautiful green in the landscape!  The once, brown, dead wisps of grass are nowhere to be seen.  With the green comes life!  It is mango season – delicious! However, along with the rain come more bugs and very big ones at that.  I found one in my bathing pail one morning and another on its back – thank goodness – it could not move so I was able to sweep it out of the courtyard. It had to be 3 inches long.  Luckily, our request for screen doors and a fix to our ceiling which was open to the rafters, were both fixed.  It has helped tremendously!  Many fewer wasps, mosquitos and bats flying around.  And now the neighbor’s cat is unable to jump our internal gate to access our hallway – which is a relief as I am allergic to cats.  So fewer cats, bats and bugs to deal with. Yea!   However, somehow the lizards/geckos seem to continue to find their way in.

One morning, while at work, we had a scare.  Someone saw smoke coming from the roof of our fourplex.  I was told to come quickly, my house was on fire.  I ran to the house, (well, it was more of a fast walk-run) which is about the equivalent of 2 city blocks from the office.  I quickly unlocked our gate and the door to the kitchen, but it was fine.  My next-door neighbor, Mary, had been out of town so we had to locate the student who had her keys (to feed her cats) to open her door.  Sure enough, her kitchen was on fire!  The Fire Department came from town – probably about 2-3 miles away, and put the fire out.  They used a ladder in our hallway that had the opening to the rafters to be sure the fire was out and wouldn’t spread to other units. (This occurred before the aforementioned fixed ceiling.) My kitchen and bathroom ended up with some water, but nothing a good cleaning couldn’t solve.  Some of the girls came and helped me empty the kitchen, remove the water, clean everything top to bottom before returning them to their proper places.  Poor Mary still has no working outlets, though she has a new kitchen ceiling and bright new paint on the walls. She shares our fridge.  It appears the fire started at the outlet to her fridge, probably over-night when we had a thunder/lightening storm.  Her two-year Peace Corps assignment is up in August, when she will be returning to New Mexico.  What a sending off gift.

Janice, the Director of Lay Mission Helpers, came to visit and before she left the students from my class sang for her.  I am including a short bit for your enjoyment.  They just love to sing and dance!  So full of smiles!
One Sunday, a few weeks ago, the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, came to visit Damongo.  He instituted a new region this year – The Savannah Region – of which Damongo was named the capitol city. Damongo is hoping this will bring jobs and increased economic stability. He showed up at Mass at the Cathedral and said a few words following Mass.   He is a Christian, though not Catholic. 
When I was getting up to bring my offering, my little friend Angela, whom I met at the Easter Monday picnic, came up to me.  I gave her a big hello and hug, she and a couple friends walked with me to give my offering and sat with me through the rest of Mass.  I was excited to think she remembered me, but then it hit me that, of course she remembers me, being a white woman here – one sticks out! 
One day after school, while I was still working in the office, I saw some girls out in the yard swinging some big knife-like objects.  They call them ‘cutlasses’.   They were cutting the grass with them, as the mower had broken down.  One girl was watching them with a clipboard, so I got the feeling maybe they were being disciplined.  Watch the video – and listen closely -  kinda humorous!

Last week was a bittersweet week.  The Form 3 students completed their WASSCE (West African Secondary School Comprehensive Exams) on June 4.  That means they have completed their formal Secondary School education.  They don’t get a diploma and graduate as we do in the United States.  They must wait for their grades to see if they have passed.  If they do well, they are eligible to go on for tertiary education – such as a teachers’ college, nursing school or college/university.  If they do not do well, they can take some private courses to study further and take the exams again.  That evening we had a special event commemorating their achievements and to bid them farewell, as they would be leaving for home early the following day. Rather than a diploma, they were given a certificate from the school.  The school’s student population went from 86 to 57 for the next two months.  The Form 1 and Form 2 students will complete their 3rd trimester at the end of July.  Summer vacation is the month of August.  Students return early September for the new academic year; we are hoping for a large entering Form 1 class to boost our population.

Well, that is some of what I have been experiencing here at SAGISS.  I continue to enjoy my time here.  I hope you enjoy reading my story and seeing the pictures and videos.

The adventure continues…..

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Holy Week in Damongo

Holy Week has always been very important to me, especially the Triduum.    Holy Saturday Mass is always so beautiful, bringing new Catholics in to the fold.  The past four years it was spent at the Cathedral of St. Paul, a magnificent piece of art, and filled with the Holy Spirit.  I loved spending my time there. 

This year Holy Week was spent in Damongo, Savannah region in northern Ghana.  I was a little concerned about whether I would be able to get to the various Masses and how I would deal with any differences from what I was used to.   It was a different experience, but I was not disappointed!   As I said in an earlier post, I am not bringing God to these people.  God is already here!

The Saturday prior to Palm (Passion) Sunday, there was a Lenten Walk, which consisted of a Stations of the Cross procession up a large hill.  As I climbed up, there were places I was wondering how in the world I would ever get back down!  Once at the top, there was a vocations talk, questions and answers about the Catholic faith, multiple priests heard Confessions and the day culminated with a celebration of the Mass.  It was a very beautiful day!  It started at 8 am and I think I got home around 2:30 pm.

The following morning, Palm Sunday, we all met at the site of St. Anne’s Church (the original Cathedral) where we received our palms and had them blessed by the Bishop.  We then processed down the main street of Damongo, carrying our palms, singing, music playing, to the site of the new Cathedral, which was opened in 2016, for the Mass of the Passion.  It was a beautiful and joyous site.

Wednesday morning of Holy Week, we had the Chrism Mass.  All the priests of the Diocese were there to renew their vows and for the blessing of the oils by the Bishop.  There were definitely not as many priests as the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, but it was a very touching Mass. 

We attended Holy Thursday Mass, where the Bishop did the washing of the feet. We arrived home around 11 pm.  Bright and early Friday morning at 7 am, all the girls of SAGISS met at the front gates and we did the Stations of the Cross down the dirt road past our campus.  I had never been down the road in that direction, so it was interesting to see what lay beyond the school.  We sang songs between stations and probably walked 1 ½ -2 miles.  On the way home, we prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.  It was 2 hours of prayer and deep contemplation of the passion of Christ.  At 3 pm on Friday, we were back at the Cathedral for the Passion readings and Veneration of the Cross.
Holy Saturday was very special.   It started with a huge, and very hot bonfire, which the Bishop blessed and used the fire to light the Easter candle.  The flame from the Easter Candle was then disseminated among the large crowd of people filing in to the Cathedral. 

The past three years, I had been an RCIA sponsor at the Cathedral of St. Paul. The Cathedral of St. Paul would often have 25-30 new members entering the Church on Holy Saturday.  We were excited here at SAGISS, as 6 girls from SAGISS were coming into the Catholic Church!  Some were of the Muslim faith, others were of different Christian denominations and others were from a traditional African religious background. It was a very exciting night for them and all of us here at SAGISS. 
To my surprise, the Cathedral of St. Anne in Damongo, had over 65 new elect!    They crowded the altar area, waiting for their turn to be Baptized and Confirmed.  The girls from SAGISS were over-joyed!  It was another very late night, arriving home about 2:30 am!  Madam Pauline, the Headmistress, then invited me in to her home for a glass of wine!  I had to say yes to celebrate the joy of Easter and the Risen Lord!  My head did not reach the pillow until after 3:20 am.  I was feeling very happy and relaxed after the wine and slept very well for 3 ½ hours when my alarm rang!   I had to be up at 7 am to be ready for the Bishop’s driver to pick me up for Easter Mass at a neighboring parish one hour away.  Bishop Peter Paul wanted me to experience another parish in the Diocese.

As we drove in to the church yard of Holy Trinity Parish in Sawla, there were many, many people outside waiting.  The church was jam packed! As the Bishop left for the Sacristy to prepare for Mass, the Pastor led me through the crowd of people, to a chair of honor on the side of the altar near the musicians.  I was sitting directly in front of the drum set and behind the ambo.  They were crowding as many people in as possible; the doorways were packed with people.  A truck filled with plastic chairs came for those who needed to be seated outside.  The youth choir was seated in the front few rows near me and they were filled with loud, joyful voices, praising the Risen Savior!  A beautiful sound and sight to behold!
I thought 65 new converts to the Catholic faith at the Cathedral of St. Anne was a lot, but this parish had 120 people being Confirmed by the Bishop and receiving their First Holy Communion on Easter morning.  The night before, at their Holy Saturday Mass, they were all baptized.  They lined the center aisle, filing in two-by-two.  It seemed to be a never-ending line of people eager to be Confirmed and later to partake in Holy Communion.

Following Mass, I was invited to have Easter dinner with the Bishop, two priests and two seminarians.   I mentioned I had been an RCIA sponsor for three years and explained the program lasted 9 months, meeting once per week.  They were astonished, because each of the people baptized and confirmed in their Diocese goes through RCIA, but it is a three year program, meeting not just once per week, but oftentimes, twice per week.  The main difference appears that they allow anyone not born into the Catholic Church nor baptized over 7 years old to be a part of the program.  So not all 120 Elect were adults, but the ages ranged anywhere from 10 years of age to 80+ years old. 

The Easter Holy Week festivities did not end with Easter Sunday.  We had a Mass at the Diocesan Secretariat Unity Center at 10 am Easter Monday.  It was followed by a picnic, where people brought food to share, vendors sold food and drinks, and there were games to be played.  Families, friends, young and old were celebrating together this wonderful day.  I was popular with the younger crowd, as I handed out lollipops and cold water and rice with red sauce.  One sweet little girl named Angela was the first to approach me, and she pretty much hung around me for the three hours I was there.  She would bring her friends over to get a lollipop.  At one point she fell asleep on my lap with an angelic smile on her face.  I had made a new friend!  The kids enjoyed having their pictures taken and performing songs for me. 

Monday evening, as I reflected on my Holy Week experiences, I thanked the Good Lord for giving me the opportunity to spend these three years with these wonderful people.  It was just 3 months ago, that I left the United States to travel to Ghana.    I have experienced so much already, that it is hard to fathom.  It is very difficult being away from family and friends; however, I know God placed me here for this time and he has blessed me abundantly.  Madam Pauline, the headmistress, and her visiting nephews and niece, Raymond, Antoinette and Anthony have welcomed me, along with the Form 3 Girls of SAGISS, to spend the Easter break with them.  They have kept me busy and helped make any time of loneliness minimal.  As you can see from the blog and pictures, I have had a Holy Week filled with the Holy Spirit and many blessings! 

The adventure continues…..