I am back in Esaase for my last week of volunteering at Esaase Christian School and Orphanage after an extended weekend getaway exploring the northern region of Ghana. Prior to leaving for the north early last Thursday morning, I spent Wednesday with Debora and her Mother Sylvana from Switzerland, their friend Benedict from France, Emily and her boyfriend Oliver from South Hampton UK, and Julie and her boyfriend Alex also from Switzerland. Debora, nicknamed Nanahemaa (queen mother) is responsible for many of the organizational, financial and sponsorship efforts happening at ECSO. Our day began at the school cocoa farm. Alexis Chapman from the US helped purchase land for an ECSO cocoa farm in 2005 (I think) and then Debora came in 2007 and learned that the farm needed additional support to maintain the crops and ideally generate a profit for the school when the cocoa is harvested. Mr. Boateng needed money to pay for the farmers and equipment and Debora, being from Switzerland, had some connections in the chocolate industry. Through those connections, she was able to find investors and sponsorship for the farm from a Swiss confectionary company. In order to support the farm, students from the Vocational School for Confectionary Apprentices in Switzerland made and sold chocolate bars. All proceeds went to ECSO. The money from this sale is helping to maintain the farm while the cocoa grows and ideally the Swiss chocolate company will buy the cocoa (as long as the quality is good) when it is harvested in 2012. I had seen cocoa growing in a few trees here and there around Ghana but had never seen them in quantity. We drove about 45 minutes to a small village, made a turn off and traveled down a dirt road for another 15 minutes before arriving at a small village where we got out of the bus and began our hike. My idea of a cocoa farm was nothing like what the cocoa farm actually looked like so it was neat to see the tropical land, strategy of planting, which did not seem to have much rhyme or reason, and the hike into the cocoa farm was beautiful. When the ECSO cocoa is harvested, the plan is to sell the cocoa to fund a vocational high school that the orphan students can attend after they graduate from ECSO. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if a student does not have financial support from a parent, family member or sponsor, he/she will not receive an education beyond 8th grade. Mr. Boateng is trying to build a vocational high school so that these students have a chance to further their education after attending ECSO.
Top row (left to right) Cocoa farmer, Debora, Nana Boateng, Cocoa farmer, Benedict, Oliver, Mr. Boateng, Emily.
Bottom row: Julie and Alex
The cocoa farm
I didn’t realize that cocoa can grow on the trunk of a tree!
After visiting the cocoa farm, we drove back towards Esaase. Before returning to the school, we stopped in another village called Nkarwie to visit with the head chief of the region regarding the tree planting project and status of the school. Mr. Boateng had apparently written to ask support for the vocational high school and received a letter back from the chief to be at his office at approximately 10am on Wednesday to discuss the issues. Mr. Boateng has begun building the school but lacks money for the roofing and other finishing touches. He wanted to bring all of us to show that the school has the support of volunteers but is lacking in community support. Despite the chief being over an hour late (blame it on Ghana time) the meeting was another great experience for me in Ghana. The chief asked Mr. Boateng about his struggles at the school and Mr. Boateng cited two big problems. One being funding for the structure of the vocational school and the other being his inability to provide the orphans with an education beyond the 8th grade. After some discussion and questions, the chief agreed to support 5 of the orphans through high school per year and he plans to help with the cost of the roofing for the vocational school. In the end, it was worth the wait to speak with the chief and ideally, this meeting made them more aware of the school (often private schools are not supported at all by the government), aware of the successes of the school (Mr. Boateng told them how much work the students had done in Owabi Wildlife Sanctuary by planting trees) and made them aware of the fact that ECSO is the only school around taking care of the orphans. We were back at school for lunch and made it an early night because of an early morning departure on Thursday to Mole National Park.
Our meeting with the region chief (tall guy in the middle-can’t remember his name)
I woke up on Thursday morning around 4:30 am because we were going to get a ride in the school bus to the main station in Kumasi to catch a 7:00 bus to Tamale. There is no way to purchase tickets in advance so by the time we left at 5:30 and got to the station to buy tickets around 6:30, long ticket lines had already formed. Many of the people in line were looking frustrated and we came to find out, after hearing a number of different versions of the story that the Tamale bus was already sold out. The good news was that another bus, not sold out, was going in the same direction but going slightly further and would cost one cedi more. Apparently this was why people were pissed…nobody wanted to pay the full price when they intended to get out at Tamale. Deborah worked her magic and we got our tickets, the bus arrived moments later and we were on our way to Tamale (a 7 hour bus ride) on a big orange Metro Mass Transit (MMT) bus with rather uncomfortable seats but only costing about $8.50 for the ride north.
Early morning at the bus station
We passed through Techiman, and about 3 hours later, stopped at Kintampo where I was finally able to go to the bathroom and eat some rice. I was charged .50 peswas (about .35 cents) to use the nasty toilets and as the nauseating smell of Ghana public restrooms filled the air, and I turned over my money, and then the bathroom attendant asked me to marry him. How romantic. We got back on the bus after a 15 minute break and continued north into Muslim country. The churches became mosques, the architecture of homes changed drastically and Ashanti fashion changed to more ornate Muslim fashions.
We arrived in Tamale around 2:00pm at the “new” bus station which was nothing more than an empty field with a wood shack as a ticket office and some vendors selling bread and water. Once we disembarked and collected our luggage, we began asking around for the bus to Larabanga, the junction and village nearest to Mole National Park. We assumed that a bus would be leaving around 4:00 and we planned to wait it out for a cheap ride. We were approached by mobs of men asking where we were going, offering us rides, and when Debora pushed past everyone to the ticket office, she learned that the last bus to Larabanga was full and that we had two options: stand for 3 hours in the aisle of the bus as it drove down a 50 mile dirt road or try to hire a driver. Since we only had one night at Mole and a hotel reservation at the popular Mole Hotel with a swimming pool, we all wanted to get there as soon as possible and with all body parts in tact. The prices to Mole in a hired tro-tro began at $200 cedis (about $175 USD). According to the men at the bus station, the road was “very very bad” and that’s why we will not get a ride for under $200 cedi. Granted there were eight of us but nobody wanted to pay $25 a piece. We still had a long weekend of traveling ahead of us, more rides to pay for, more meals and more lodging. A young boy claiming to want nothing more than to help us find a less expensive ride, grabbed Deboras hand and told her that he could find us a ride for $100 cedi but we would have to walk to the tro tro station. At this point we figured that we had nothing to loose. If anything, we would be led to the tro tro station, which was the best chance we had at getting a ride to Larabanga. We all trudged through the town of Tamale, which appeared to be the capital of motorcycles and scooters, walked for about 20 minutes, past shanty kiosks and vendors then arrived at the chaotic tro tro station only to find out that a ride for $100 cedi did not exist. This boy played the game with us, appeared just as frustrated and claiming that just last month, he got a group of 8 a ride for $100 cedi. We stood around for a good 45 minutes arguing with various tro tro drivers, none of whom wanted to make the drive to Mole. Finally, we found a man who was willing to go for $140…or so he said. We piled in the white van, and the driver turned up the middle eastern techo music (really bad) to a volume that caused all of us to laugh hysterically and then cover our ears. We all found it odd that the boy who led us to the tro tro station had weaseled his way into the front seat of our tro tro and would be accompanying us to the park. LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN.
Once we turned onto the infamous road to Larabanga, we were told to open all of the windows so when the dust came into the van, it would also circulate out of the van. I was not sure exactly how much dust the driver was talking about but within 20 minutes, I knew we were in for a really rough and dusty ride.
The three hour road to nowhere…well, maybe Mole Natl. Park but we sure didn’t see any end in sight for quite some time
I have no idea how the van made it all the way to the park, but we all suffered some extreme whiplash and 2.5 hours after departing from Tamale, we arrived at the gates, covered in orange dust from head to toe. The inside of the van was orange, our driver was orange, and all of us looked like we had gone into the Mystic Tan (spray tan) booth with our clothes on.
Our orange-tinted, pissed off bus driver and the creepy boy who joined us for the ride (wearing Barack Obama boxers)
We checked into the hotel after each paying an entrance fee of $10 cedis (the hotel is actually inside the park) and all we really wanted was to dust off and take a shower. As Debora was checking in, I overhead an angry American yelling and demanding a manager…apparently there had not been running water in the hotel for two days. At this point, all you can really do is laugh and try to make the best of it. As we walked to our room it hit me that we were in Mole National Park and that the stories were true…a family of baboons literally greeted us at our hotel room door. I put on my bathing suit and and as I walked to the pool, past more baboons and warthogs, and as I jumped in, thanked God that we had arrived safely, with all body parts in tact and just in time for dinner.
Baboon standing about 10 feet from my hotel room
We celebrated our arrival with some Star beer and jollof rice then called it an early night because we had to be up for a 6:00 am guided walk through the park. Here are a few pictures from our walk:
Mole National Park
After eating a yummy complimentary breakfast at the hotel, we paid 5 cedis each to be driven back to the town of Larabanga. According to someone, there was a 10am bus to Wa, in the far northwest corner of Ghana, minutes from Burkina Faso, where were had planned to stay at a the Weichau Community Hippo Sanctuary. We were dropped in Larabanga and approached by another group of men all wanting to know where we were headed. Debora explained to them that we would be catching the bus and did not need to hire a driver. Apparently the only bus to Wa left at 6am and according to these guys, there would not be another bus until 6pm…maybe. Debora did not believe them so we waited…and waited…and waited….
4 hours later, after we had pretty given up hope and come to grips with the fact that we might have to stay in Larabanga (the Mole Hotel was full) and catch the 6am bus on Saturday (they wanted to charge us another $200 cedi to hire a car to Wa), our saving grace pulled into town. As a group of 10 piled out, a few of the men whom we had befriended in town approached the truck driver. We were waved over and told that he was going to Wa and we could catch a free ride if three people would be willing to sit in the bed of the truck. A FREE RIDE TO WA! YES! Without hesitating, Debora, Alex and Julie jumped into the back of the truck and I got into the cab with the other 3 ladies while tall Oliver sat in front.
The man going to Wa was incredibly nice, drove a really nice truck and had a government job that requires him to drive around to small villages and educate people of the northern region about irrigation. He is based in Tamale but his family lives in Wa and he has time to see them about one weekend a month, so he was driving west to spend the weekend with his family. During the ride, he told us that the north only experiences one rainy season so there is only one season to farm as opposed to two rainy seasons in the southern half of Ghana. Most families in the north practice subsistence farming which means they only grow crops for their personal food. Learning how to use irrigation systems will allow them to grow crops throughout the year, not only for themselves but there is the potential to make money and improve the economy in northern Ghana when more people are farming. He is also working with banks to loan money to people who want to begin irrigation farming.
During the drive I made a phone call to a man named Henry who works at the Wa tourist office. He had booked our accommodation at the Hippo Sanctuary for Friday night and based on the events of the last two days, I knew that we would not make it to Wa then to Weichau by dark so I wanted to cancel Friday night and find out if we could stay on Saturday night instead. Henry answered the phone and said that he already knew they could accommodate us on Saturday night. He recommended that we stay in Wa for the night and he promised to arrange a ride for us from Wa to Weichau in the morning so we would have a full day in Weichau. After driving around to 5 hotels that were all full and having one of the receptionists call additional hotels, (the man in the truck was nice enough to stay with us until we found a place to sleep) we arrived at the Kedge Lodge where this guy claimed we would be able to stay. It was no wonder there was availability and I won’t go into detail but certainly the worst place I have ever slept. It did not help that around 11pm, I began vomiting up my dinner (spicy chickpea looking beans and plantains) and had to walk to the nasty shared bathroom with no toilet seat that was 20 feet from my bedroom, and sit there until I was feeling better.
After a bad night of sleep we were all ready to get picked up from this craphole at the arranged time of 7:30am. We waited….and waited…and waited some more….the ride never came. Henry kept saying that the driver was close but when we received a call about 3 hours later from the people at the Hippo Sanctuary, we learned that the van had a flat tire and had not left Weichau yet. Debora decided to walk to the tro tro station so we could catch a ride to Weichau. About 35 minutes later, a truck pulled up that had row seats in the bed, a canopy top and already looked completely full. I realized that this would be our ride to Weichau. Our backpacks were loaded on the top and strapped down and 7 more piled into the back of the truck. I was still feeling rather sick so I crammed in the front seat with two other men. The road to Weichau was as rough as the road to Mole and if I thought our last bus wouldn’t make it on the road, I was certain that this one was going nowhere. We stopped about 6 times and the driver kept getting out to fix something. Debora and the rest of the crew inhaled a lifetime of exhaust and were once again covered in dust but after we finally arrived in Weichau. Oliver was not happy and told me that he honestly feared for his life the entire time they were in the back of that truck. He said it was by far the scariest moment of his life.
The men working at the visitors center at the Hippo Sanctuary were expecting us thanks to Henry (although he didn’t score points for the ride to Weichau not showing up) and we were happy to learn that there were exactly 8 beds left and that the driver would be sleeping at the sanctuary to ensure a 5:30 am departure to Wa, so we could catch the 7am bus back to Kumasi. Despite only seeing two hippos off in the distance during our dugout canoe paddle trip on the Black Volta, I enjoyed getting out on the river, the weather was gorgeous, stars were so bright, the accommodations in rustic mud and stick huts were really cool, and the outdoor sunset bucket showers was memorable.
Here are some pictures from the Hippo Sanctuary:
Our lodge at the hippo sanctuary
my bed for the night
Hanging out on the rooftop of the lodge
Canoeing on the Black Volta
Sunset dinner (we made spaghetti and tomato sauce from scratch)
When I arrived on Sunday around 4pm, Tabea gave me the rundown for the week. I did not realize that end of term exams began this week and that there was not much for me to do but help type up exams that would continue into next week and review/edit the ICT exam for each grade level. Yesterday I administered a written computer exam to the 6th graders and the highest grade after I scored the tests was a 70%. The rest of the students averaged about a 30% and for this particular exam, I had not looked over it prior to passing it out to the students because I was traveling when the computer teacher typed up the exams. After this test, I asked her if I could glance over and edit some of the other exams. So, the printer lasted for most of the day yesterday but just as we were about to print grade 5, the ink ran out and there was no replacement. I told Mr. Boateng that I would go to Kumasi to print the test because I needed to check email and write a blog post. I’m back at my favorite internet cafe in Kumasi and after 4 days of traveling, I am still completely exhausted. It took everything I had to get in a tro tro today and come down here because I’m getting somewhat burnt out of being squished into vans, relentless horn honking, having people pass out and head bob on my shoulder, sitting next to large smelly trays of whole fish, headaches from the diesel fumes and hearing “obroni obroni obroni” and hissing everywhere I go. So, that is my complaining for the week and I hesitate in saying that I’m ready to come home but the days are getting longer, and I really miss my friends and family, summer fun in Chicago and I can’t wait to eat fresh vegetables and take a hot shower!
From what I can gather, tomorrow is a no-exam day at school and I’m planning to spend the day with Justina, the computer teacher and show her how to use the open source software I installed on some of the computers. I also hope the Internet holds out at school because I promised her I would get her an email address to write her and the kids. On Thursday it is the 5 year anniversary of volunteers at ECSO and a fundraising event, so Mr. Boateng and the staff are throwing a party. Based on what I’ve seen around the school, I believe the kids will be performing various dance, music and drama throughout the day, I know Debora had to prepare a speech and otherwise, it’s all going to be a surprise! I have no idea what to expect but I’m looking forward to seeing end product of what the students have been practicing all month. On Friday, it is the end of term dance party and Mr. Boateng plans to have music from 12-6pm. We have a funeral to attend on Saturday and I’m sure that I will have stories from all of these events but I do not plan to post again until I arrive in Accra on Sunday and check into my hotel. By then, I anticipate having many more stories to share. Thanks for reading my very long post. This is what happens when I’m without internet for 6 days!