Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jane's Secret

About a week and a half ago, one of my students told me her “secret.” I think I’ve mentioned this student’s name before, but since I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone her secret, I’ll call her “Jane” in this blog.

For the first few weeks I taught class 4, “Jane” was pretty quiet. I didn’t give her any extra special attention until the week they wrote poems for composition class. Jane’s poem was about her sister. In the poem, she writes about how she beats her lazy sister with a belt to correct her when she does something wrong. Her other poem was about her “wicked” stepmother and how much she hates her. That’s when I realized there was something different about her, something a little bit dark.

A few weeks later, she gave me a note begging me to be her “elder sister” and to take her with me when I travel, because, she wrote, she doesn’t feel comfortable at home, where everyone tells her she’s “stupid, ugly, foolish, suck, a thief.” When I read this note, I thought perhaps she must come from a tumultuous, broken family life. Not long after she gave me the note, the first of Jane’s dark secrets spilled out when I was talking with her and some of her classmates.

“Miss Kate, my father is married to two women,” she burst out after a classmate complained that she hardly sees her father. “My mother traveled and is living abroad, and while she was gone, my father married another woman, my stepmother. I had a dream that she would treat me badly, and it’s true! She hates me and makes me and my sister do all the housework, like Cinderella, but her children don’t do anything. My father married two women, and my mother doesn’t even know!” She looked like she was about to cry.

Ah, so she does come from a broken family, something that seems to be much less common in Ghana than in America. As she told me this, I realized that she might be exaggerating when she said she had to do all the housework and that her mother doesn’t even know about her father’s second marriage. However, that doesn’t change the tragedy of her situation. She lives in a house where she feels mistreated and quite unloved by her stepmother and basically neglected by everyone else.

“Jane, when was the last time you saw your mother?” I asked.

“I don’t remember. She left when I was just a baby,” Jane said sadly. “She talks to me on the phone sometimes, and she sends me clothes and shoes from abroad, but I don’t remember what she looks like. That’s why I want you to take me with you when you go, because I want to see my mother. My mother lives abroad.”

“Where does your mother live?” a classmate asked.

“I just said, she lives abroad,” Jane replied.

“But where? You can’t just say ‘abroad,’ That’s not a country,” the classmate insisted.

“Yes it is! London!” said another classmate, quite sure of herself.

“Oh,” said the first classmate, slightly embarrassed.

“Miss Kate, isn’t the UK near London?” another student asked.

“No. London is in the UK,” I explained.

“Isn’t that near America?”

We need to work on our geography skills, don’t we?

Oh, my poor little Jane, an almost-motherless daughter of a broken home. Was that the reason for the notes she sent me? She has handed me a few very dark notes, talking about how the world was so unkind to her that she just wanted to die. She wrote that she would kill herself. She is ten-years-old! Of course it pains me greatly whenever I hear my precious students talking about wanting to kill themselves, but sadly, I’ve heard it from more than one student. However, none of the others were quite as intense as Jane. The other couple girls simply cried that they want to kill themselves during a dramatic moment when they were feeling upset or unloved. But with Jane... one time, when she was in trouble with one of the teachers, she came up to me quite calmly and told me she would take her father’s gun and shoot herself in the head. Everyone would be happier that way, she said. The world was so unkind to her.

“Jane, don’t say that! The world would be such a sad place without you!” I said, giving her a huge hug.

“No, Miss Kate. That’s not true. The only person who truly cares about me is my mother, and she lives abroad and I never see her. No one here cares about me so I’m just going to kill myself, okay? Thank you for saying yes.”

“No, it’s not okay! I love you. I’m your elder sister, remember?” I said, holding her tightly. “Jane, you’re beautiful!”

“No, I’m not. I’m ugly.” No matter how many times I insisted to her that she’s beautiful, she refused to accept it.

This girl clearly has problems. I honestly believed they came from living in a broken home with a stepfamily who tells her she’s ugly and who doesn’t show her the love and attention she so desperately craves. Oh, sometimes I wish I could go back to believing that. As sad as that reason is, it’s nothing compared to the real secret. About a week and a half ago, she told me the rest of her secret.

“Miss Kate, I’m ready to tell you my secret,” she said, coming up to my desk during snack break. I had a strange foreboding about this, and remembered the time little Georgia of Class 3 had told me her “secret,” that her father beats her, and that he beat her mother so badly she was sent to the hospital. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for something like Georgia’s secret.

“Okay, Jane. What is your secret?”

“Promise not to tell anyone?” she said. I nodded. Jane came close to me and whispered into my ear, “I’m not a virgin.”

My heart stopped. Brian came up to my desk, asking me about something, but I quickly shooed him away, silently praying that Jane didn’t know what the word ‘virgin’ meant. I pulled her close and whispered into her ear, “How do you know?”

She whispered back, “I know I’m not a virgin because I was raped.”

“What happened?” I said, and her story spilled out in frantic whispers. A man who used to live at her house named Kofi did it. As she started to describe to me the circumstances surrounding one of the times, when she and her brother were sent to visit him at his house in her home village, her eyes began to water, and she trembled until she couldn’t speak anymore. Listening to her horrendous experience, I wanted to cry. Instead, I held her close to me, rocking her gently, and whispered how sorry I was, that that was something that should never happen to a wonderful girl like her, that she was still beautiful.

“Oh, Jane, you’re beautiful, and God loves you,” I whispered.

“No, Miss Kate. You’re wrong. God doesn’t love me,” she replied.

“Yes he does!” I insisted.

“No, he doesn’t. God doesn’t love people who aren’t virgins,” she said.

Jane was raped by Kofi “no less than twelve times,” in 2006 and 2007, when she was six or seven. Since then, she has told her parents about it. She said that her father was very angry when he found out, and asked her why she waited so long to report. Her mother started crying when she found out.

“Now you know my secret. Don’t tell anyone. This is why I think I’m ugly. This is why I said I want to die. I don’t want to live anymore, because of what happened, because I was raped.”

It happened in the past, and now that her family is aware of it, I don’t think it will happen again. There’s nothing I can do about it except try to help her heal. This has had such a devastating effect on her life. I can’t begin to tell you how tragic this is to me! I’m 23, and I know I would be scarred for life if I were to be raped now... but to have to bear such a heavy burden as a little child! To have her innocence so disgustingly stolen from her at such a young age! My precious student, my “little sister,” Jane... I can’t believe it!

Since confiding in me her “secret,” she sometimes brings it up with me in quiet whispers and we talk about. “Miss Kate, how could God love me? I’m not a virgin. I’m a bad person.”

“No you’re not, Jane! You are a good person. You are a beautiful girl. What happened wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it was my fault. I let him do it to me. It’s my fault,” she insisted.

“No, no, no, no! It’s not your fault! I promise you. You’re just a child. You couldn’t do anything about it. You are innocent,” I said. “God is angry at Kofi for what he did to you.”

“How do you know? I don’t think he is. I think God doesn’t love me, because I let Kofi do that to me. It’s my fault.”

She sometimes threatens to tell the rest of the class her secret. I ask her not to. I don’t think it’s something the rest of the kids need to be thinking about. I don’t want to put these terrifying images in their heads. She admitted that she has already told a few of her classmates her “secret,” and she named each of them, but I ask her please not to tell anyone else.

The other day, a couple of the girls were talking about how on TV Africa, the late news was cancelled the night before because armed robbers had raped two of the female news reporters, so the other female reporters were afraid and the police were on the chase. I don’t know how true this is; this is just what some of the girls were saying. Jane happened to be standing next to me, and I watched the look of terror in her eyes. She put her little arms around me and hugged me tightly. Later in the day, she took me aside, and told her that when her classmates were talking about the TV Africa women, it reminded her of what Kofi did to her.

Why did that have to happen to her?

The other day, however, Jane ran up to me, quite excited about something.

“Miss Kate! Miss Kate! What you said is true!” she exclaimed.

“What? What are you talking about?” I said.

“When you told me I’m beautiful!” she said, and explained: “My stepbrother was teasing me that I’m ugly, that I have a face like an ugly yam, and my father said, ‘No daughter of mine is ugly. Jane is beautiful.’ So, you’re right! I am beautiful!”

“See? I told you!” I said. She told me this on my birthday. It was the best birthday present she could have given me.

Sadly, since then, she seems to have forgotten her father’s affirmation, and still believes that she’s ugly and damaged. She asked me today whether or not she should get married, because of what happened. I assured her that yes, she should get married someday, that even though she was raped, she can still live a normal life and be happy. Oh, God, I hope she can.

If I were in America, I’d spend several hours at the library pouring over psychology books on how to help child rape victims. However, given my lack of resources here in Africa, I don’t have the luxury of a library. So if any of you, my readers, have any kind of insight or advice about how to help this broken little girl, please pass it on to me. If you’re spiritual, say a little prayer for my student “Jane.” Jane isn’t her real name, but I have a feeling God will know who you’re talking about.

Monday, March 30, 2009


The kids started their second-term exams today.

In Ghana, seventy percent of their grade is based on their exam results. They have exams at the end of each term, and as there are three terms in a Ghanaian academic year, they have three exams per year. All the homework, tests, classwork, etc, only amounts to thirty percent of their grade. So, yes. The pressure is on! I’m hoping and praying for my students to do wonderfully on all their exams!

I can’t believe that my first term as a Class 4 English teacher is already basically over! It went by so fast!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

My 23rd Birthday in Africa

27th March, 2009. I woke up in the morning still feeling sick but grateful I didn’t have malaria. I got ready for the day like normal, and went downstairs for breakfast. Someone had put red flowers from the blossoming tree in the playground in a little glass, and set the glass at my place at the table, along with a little plate with a fried egg. Eggs are a treat usually saved for Sundays, so I felt so special! When Sister Juliana and Sister Dorothy came in, they both greeted me with a huge smile, a hug, and a “Happy Birthday, Kate!” Dorothy ran back to her room and returned with a card in a huge red envelope and a little gift. They were very excited that the flowers and the envelope matched the red dress I was wearing! Haha! When I opened the little gift, I found a little vase with little red silk roses and a heart that said “I love you” on it... a little leftover Valentine’s Day treat. It was a nice way to start the day!

I had such a wonderful day at school! When I walked into Class 4A after assembly to greet them, they erupted loudly into the Birthday song, and at the end, swarmed me and drowned me in hugs. So cute! I spent most of the day teaching English, although I had to stop midway through the morning to go to my room to rest for about an hour. I felt a little better that morning, but still not 100% yet. After a short nap, I was able to return to class and teach the second English class. So many of my students gave me cards, notes, drawings, little gifts, snacks, drinks, chocolate, etc. At the end of the day, I had a gift bag that was FULL of presents and actually quite heavy!

I’ve started a “Writer’s Club” on Fridays during activities for my little storytellers and poets to perfect their craft, and this Friday, we heard some marvelous poems and talked about personification and dialogue. Afterwards, some of my favorite students hung out with me. Oh, I just love them all so much! Some of the girls had made up a little birthday song and dance for me... it was so precious! I made a video on my camera which I tried to upload, but the internet connection is too slow. Anyway, I had such a great day at school with my kids, and now I have dozens of sweet little cards and drawings that I’ll treasure forever. Being with my students was definitely the best part of my birthday.

I spent my birthday evening with Friends. When I came down for dinner that evening, everyone was gone. I waited for a while until I remembered that the doctor said I needed to take my malaria medicine every twelve hours on the dot with a meal, so I went down and ate alone. At 8:30, I turned on the TV... Viasat1 shows reruns of Friends every weekday! Friends is my favorite TV show and always makes me laugh. The best part of the evening, however, was receiving a few long distance phone calls from friends and family in America, which of course put a huge smile on my face. :)

Yesterday, Fred was supposed to come over with Mavis around 10 to take me out, but his car was still being worked on in the shop, so he didn’t come around until after 3. It was okay, because around 2:30 I got a call from Sister Juliana telling me to come downstairs... she had a bottle of Guinness, a little cake, and a big tub of ice cream for me! She, Sister Anne, Sister Dorothy, and I ate and celebrated. Everything was SO good! I love birthdays!

Fred and Mavis finally showed up and we left around 4 in Fred’s car. (He’s had this old Mercedes for quite a while, and he’s been working on fixing it up, and it was finally drivable!) We stopped by a Teacher’s Training College and picked up their friend Margaret and her friend who was also called Mavis (we called her “little Mavis” to distinguish between her and the other Mavis). We went to the shopping mall and had dinner at this Portuguese restaurant that served only chicken. I had a spicy chicken burger with french fries and pineapple juice. After dinner, we walked around the mall for a bit... nothing too fun. I appreciated the effort, but it made me really miss my friends from home. Margaret and little Mavis barely even talked to me, mostly just having quiet conversations with each other. None of them drink, so after dinner we spent a while just walking around a grocery store. Not exactly my idea of an exciting time. I thought about my birthday celebrations the past few years, the wonderfully fun times I had with my dear friends. Africans are so very different. They don’t go out very often, preferring to stay at home or to visit friends in their houses, and they consider 10 o’clock to be “late.” It wasn’t even 8 o’clock yet, and Margaret and little Mavis were complaining that they wanted to go back. We dropped them off first, then Fred drove me back to the convent. Just before I got out of the car, I opened up the present that Mavis had given me... a piece of lovely African-print cloth for me to make a dress. What a sweetheart! I was very touched. I can’t wait to have it sewn!

I walked into the house at 9 o’clock. So early! However, I was feeling strangely tired. I couldn’t figure out why I was so tired until I remembered that I’m still getting over being sick. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and was sleeping by 9:30. I slept in until 7 this morning, and woke up feeling much better than before. I’m still a little bit sick, but I’m definitely on the mend.

So, that was my African birthday celebration! I’m 23 now... yay! Thanks for all the birthday wishes, everyone!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The hospital

“Do I have malaria or what?” That was the question that had been bothering me since Tuesday morning. When Sister Juliana found out I was sick, she advised me to go to the hospital, and since I live in a place where malaria is quite common, I decided to take her advice. My hospital is Legon University Hospital, where all the university students go. I’ve been there a few times before, but it was nothing like this.

Okay, when I hear the word “hospital,” usually what comes to mind is a big, multi-story building, with sterile white walls and fluorescent lighting. Legon Hospital isn’t like that. It consists of a few buildings separated by grass and parking lot, and each building is only one story. The Out Patient building has two grassy courtyards, and each room (consulting rooms, laboratory, dispensary, records office, etc.) opens directly to the sidewalk next to the grass. Unless you’re in the room, you’re outside. Does that make sense?

Anyway, yesterday, I arrived at the hospital at 8:15AM. I couldn’t believe how many people were sitting on the benches that lined the hallways, waiting! I waited by the window of the records office with my hospital card in hand. I could see through the window the man in the office sorting files, and I waited patiently for him to help me. Finally, he opened the window and told me to put my card in the little box on the other side and wait. So I did.

I waited as the records people called out names of patients whose files they had retrieved. I sat on a bench next to the window, listening carefully, because Ghanaians often mispronounce my name. Finally, I heard, “Kat-lynn Dalton.” Close enough. The man at the window gave me my folder and told me to pay at the dispensary. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I’ve been there before (four other times, to be exact), so I knew where to go. After waiting briefly in the line, I paid 10 Gh¢, and returned to the records office. I waited for the people crowding around the window to be helped so I could ask the man where to go. He pointed down the hall and directed me to Consulting Room 4. It was around 9:15.

After placing my folder in the box lying on the ground next to the door, I sat down on a bench with dozens of other Ghanaians and waited. A nurse came out with a stack of folders in her arms and called out names of the patients who had been waiting there before me. As their names were called, the other patients got up and arranged themselves on the bench in order of service. My name wasn’t called; the nurse hadn’t removed the latest stack from the box. I turned on my iPod and waited.

Apparently the doctor hadn’t even arrived yet! The nurse called in the other patients, one by one, and took their temperatures so that the doctor could see them right away when he arrived. We all sat, waiting, until the doctor finally arrived. I’m not sure what time this was. Once the doctor was in, the line of people sitting and waiting slowly shifted forward. After a while, the nurse came out with a fresh stack of folders and again called out names. On the fifth name, she was stuck. She squinted her eyes and moved her lips without making noise as if practicing the pronunciation. “Ka, Kath, Kath-lyn? Dalton?” Close enough. I got up and shifted next to the man just before me. “Ah, it’s you!” the nurse said when she made the connection that the foreign name belongs to the foreign girl.

It was about 11:15. I waited for the four patients before me to be seen, and finally, the man before me came out and nodded that it was my turn. No more waiting!

I went into the consulting room and sat down on a chair at the doctor’s desk. I explained to the doctor how I felt and that I was advised to come to the hospital to check for malaria. The doctor stuck a thermometer under my arm, and when he removed it, he informed me of my temperature.

“37 degrees” he said.

Do I look like I understand Celsius? “Is that... normal?” I asked awkwardly. “I only know Fahrenheit.”

“Ah, you’re American? We’re on the British system here. Let’s see, 37ºC is the same as...” he paused, trying to figure out the math. “90 something,” he declared after about fifteen seconds. I hope he’s better at medicine than he is at math.

“98.6” the nurse said. “No temperature. Healthy.”

That’s a good sign, right?

He gave me a slip of paper and instructed me to go to the lab for a blood test. I was to come back to him with the results when they were ready.

I went to the lab, put the lab request in the little box, sat down, and waited. I thought I heard them call my name, but when I went into the lab, they told me it wasn’t my turn yet. I went back out and waited some more, until finally, I heard, “Kath-lynn” again. I went inside and sat down on a chair next to one of the lab guys.

“So, did the doctor already prescribe you medicine?” he asked as he shoved the needle into my vein.

“No, not yet,” I said, closing my eyes and turning my face away. (I don’t mind shots or needles, but I don’t like watching them go into my skin.) “He said to come back in with the results.”

When he had finished, he flicked the vial of blood. “He hasn’t given you medicine yet? But by the time we finish with the lab results, he’ll already be gone.”

“What time will you finish?”

“We won’t have your results ready until about 4,” he said. Ahh!!! “Will you come back tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. The doctor just said to go back after the results were ready.”

The technician paused for a moment, considering my dilemna. “Okay,” he said at last. “Come back in an hour’s time. We’ll have it ready by then.”

After exiting the lab, I took out my cell phone. 12:15. I had been at the hospital for four hours. I was already feeling dizzy, so I left the hospital and crossed the street to buy a few roasted plantains to eat for lunch. After eating them, I went back inside and waited. I read James Joyce. I listened to music. I watched a mother taking care of her baby. At 1:12, I went back to the lab to ask about my results.

“You’re Kath-lynn?” another man asked, hunched over a ledger. “It’s not ready yet. Wait outside, and we’ll call you when they’re ready.”

I waited another half an hour. Finally, the lab guy called me back in, and handed me the request sheet with a little receipt-like paper stapled onto it. Each line had a three-letter abbreviation followed by numbers with percentages. There were about a dozen lines on the paper. I had no clue what the lines meant. Did I have malaria or what? I went back to the doctor’s office, and saw that only one person was sitting in front.

“Are you waiting to see the doctor?” I asked.

“No, I’m not waiting, but there’s someone in there right now,” she said. “You’ll have to wait for them to finish.”

I sat down and waited. I didn’t wait too long before a nurse walked by and gave the message that the doctor had gone home, but that I was to see the afternoon doctor in the emergency room. The nurse went into the office and brought out my file, asking me if I knew where to go. I did. I’ve been to the emergency room here before (thanks to the dogs), so I walked across the parking lot, through the waiting room, and down the hall, straight to the nurses station. As I was walking, I suddenly became nervous. What the hell is wrong with me? Typhoid? Malaria? But my nervousness was overshadowed by how sick I was of waiting. I explained to a sympathetic nurse my situation. He took my file from me, and told me to wait in the waiting room until he called me.

I waited. Finally, I heard, “Kath-lynn.” It was my turn! I sat down on a chair across from the doctor in the crowded nurses area (no privacy there whatsoever) and handed him the lab result. He considered it for a moment, before handing it back and dropping my sentence.

“Your blood levels are normal,” he said. “There are no traces of malaria or typhoid.”


“But, just because the parasite isn’t in your blood doesn’t mean you don’t have it.” Huh? He was trying to tell me what that meant, but two nurses were having a loud conversation right over our heads. He waited until they were finished talking. “You still might have it. I’m prescribing you some anti-malaria drugs, just in case.” He scribbled something in my folder and instructed me to take it to the pharmacy.

I walked back across the parking lot and into the dispensary. I handed my folder to the pharmacist, an old man with white hair and light brown eyes. I waited as he tapped away at a calculator and returned my folder to me. “It will be that amount,” he said, pointing to the 5.50 he had scribbled on the sheet. The pharmacy is right across from the cashier’s window, so I paid, returned to the pharmacist, and waited. I watched him sort out medicine, counting pills to put into a little plastic baggie. Finally, he handed me a plastic bag with three sets of pills. He gave me verbal instructions for taking the pills, and said I could go. Finally!

I left the doctor’s office at 2:30. I had been there for over six hours! I kind of wanted to kill myself, then I remembered that I was grateful that I didn’t have malaria so I could live a long life.

I DON’T have malaria (probably). I’m still quite sick with whatever I have, but I’m feeling better than I did yesterday. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I’m feeling sick.

It started yesterday. It felt like I was about to get sick, you know, with my throat on the verge of being sore and my body feeling overly fatigued. I rested as much as I could yesterday, but I had a hard time falling asleep last night.

Today I woke up not feeling much better. I dragged myself out of bed at 6:05, and was so sluggish that I didn’t get to school until 7:40, when the kids were just lining up for assembly. I had two free periods before my first English class, so I came back to the house and rested. When I was walking back to begin teaching, I passed Sister Julie and explained how I felt.

“You should go to the hospital,” she said. “They’ll send you to the lab to get some blood tests done.”

“No. I don’t see the point. It’s just a cold. What can the doctors do?” I said. “They’ll just tell me to rest and to drink plenty of fluids. I don’t want to wait for hours just to hear that.”

It wasn’t until I was halfway through my first English class when it struck me that maybe this could be more than a cold or a flu. I was feeling so shitty I could barely teach. Somehow, I made it through Class 4A’s English class, but halfway through 4B’s, I had to leave. I stopped by the office to tell Sister Julie.

“I told you you should have gone to the hospital,” she said.

“Um, is a sore throat one of the symptoms of malaria?” I asked.

“Malaria can take on many symptoms. With mine, it started by not being able to raise my right arm,” she said. “Sometimes, it can be a sore throat, and tiredness.”

Oh, shit.

I’m supposed to be teaching writing to Class 4A right now, but instead, I’m in bed. If I’m not feeling better by tomorrow, I’m planning on going to the hospital in the morning.

PLEASE don’t be malaria!

Oh, those f***ing mosquitoes! So evil! I sleep with a mosquito net and the fan going to keep me safe. However, a couple nights ago, I woke up in the morning with over a dozen bites on my feet. I must have accidentally kicked off my sheet while I was sleeping. It’s so hot here that it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve been taking anti-malaria pills every day since I came here, but I know they don’t always work. I’m reeeeally hoping that they have worked, and that I’m ill with some other less serious sickness. I guess I’ll know tomorrow.

What a bummer! Especially since, when I talked to Fred last night, he wouldn’t tell me what his plans were for my birthday, because he and Mavis wanted it to be a surprise. Whatever this sickness is, I really hope it’s gone by the weekend! This will probably be the only birthday I’ll celebrate in Africa, and I don’t want to spend it in bed. Whatever, who cares about 23rd birthdays? What I’m more concerned about is Easter vacation, which starts two weeks from tomorrow. I want to spend my vacation on a safari in the North, looking at elephants and sitting on crocodiles. (Yes, it’s true... there’s a park where you can go sit on a crocodile’s back! They feed it a chicken while you sit, so the crocodile doesn’t even notice you. Everyone talks about it and I’ve seen it on TV. I think it would be SO awesome to sit on a crocodile’s back!) But in the meantime... who will teach my students English?

Maybe this is just a cold, and I’ll wake up tomorrow feeling perfectly healthy. We’ll see! If you’re on speaking terms with God, say a prayer for me, please!

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Did I ever tell you about my friend Joe? He’s quite awesome. I randomly met him when I visited the Arts and Culture Centre in Accra last month. There were so many annoying Ghanaian men who were harassing me, trying to pick up on the rich, tourist obrunis who visit the art center, following me around, just annoying the hell out of me! After looking around at the art, I sat down at a table in a little refreshment stand and ordered a pineapple juice. As I sat sipping my drink, another man walked up and asked if he could talk to me. I was SO annoyed that these Ghanaian men wouldn’t leave me alone that I was a quite rude to him at first, until he explained that he was a university student doing research for his thesis and wanted to know my reaction to the art. At first I thought it was just a pick up line, but the more we talked, the more I liked him. He’s one of the most educated people I’ve met in Ghana. He told me about the research he’s doing for his final project, and that led to his telling me all about archeology and the wonderful things one can learn while studying it. I found our conversation to be intellectually stimulating, which delighted me so much that when he said he had to go, I agreed to exchange phone numbers.

We’ve hung out a couple times since then. He lives at Legon, the university which is about a fifteen-minute drive from my house. We went out for drinks at a little bar next to my house, and another time he gave me a tour of his university’s beautiful campus. He is very nice, polite, and educated, so I enjoy hanging out with him quite a bit. He told me about this cultural music festival his department (archeology) was organizing on March 20, and I was invited to come. Of course I said yes! I love live music more than I could possibly say, and what an opportunity to experience real African culture! I decided to bring Hannah with me, because I knew that since Joe was organizing it, he would be running around the whole time, and I didn’t want to sit alone. Also, Hannah never goes out, and I thought it would be good for her to attend this free, fun, and educational event.

It was the 3rd African Indigenous Music Festival (or “AIMFEST 2009,” which sounds a lot cooler). The venue was an outdoor patio, bordered with trellises covered with flowers. Plastic chairs had been arranged facing a little stage next to the building. We took a seat in the second row and waited. Of course, since we’re on Africa time, it started way behind schedule. While we waited, I chatted with Joe (when he wasn’t running around setting everything up) and with his friend Sammy. I really enjoyed talking with Sammy, because he asked me smart questions about my reaction to Ghana. (Most people ask me dumb questions.)

Once the program started, however, I was too enthralled by the music to talk to anyone. It amazed me! The first group to perform was called Gonje. The group’s leader, blind man with cool hair, was everything you could want an African musician to be. He had the clothes, the moves, the vibe, the hair, even sunglasses at night. Just awesome! There were a few ladies who sang and shook these instruments. Two men played these instruments that looked like a xylophone, except with clay pots under each note. My favorite, I must admit, was the drummer. He was F-I-N-E. He sat to the right of the group, surrounded by African drums of different shapes and sizes, and pounded away with his hands. It was quite obvious that drumming wasn’t his only work out. His chocolate-colored wife-beater accentuated his very built chest, and the drumming brought my eyes to his strong arms. Not only did he have the most amazing body I’ve seen in a long time, but also, he had a very attractive face. Plus, he’s a musician, and you know how sexy that is. Basically, he’s the type of man who makes me glad to be a woman. Let’s just say if he ever harassed me and tried to pick up on me, I wouldn’t mind it one bit!

Gonje was my favorite, but all the musicians/dancers were awesome. Four men dressed in traditional Ghanaian clothing (a colorful cloth draped over one shoulder and around their bodies like Lady Liberty) sat in a row drumming out a beat on four different types of African drums. Four women dressed in very traditional Ghanaian clothing (these dresses with many pieces of fabric attached to the waist for a skirt) danced traditional Ghanaian dances. They called themselves Amamre mma. There was a group of men and women from Togo called Ajetepepe. They wore face paint and did crazy tribal dances. Another group, Borborbor, was formed of many men and women gathered around singing, with drums, bells, shakers, etc. The best part? One man had a little trumpet! When he busted it out, and joined in the noise, I was so happy! They reminded me of the church choirs that play at Our Lady of Peace in Madina. There were two other music/dance groups. The Dromo Pan African Dance Ensemble performed dances from Nigeria and South Africa that were amazing to watch. Hewale was probably the funniest. Three of their dancers came out wearing miniskirts, bras, and heavy makeup... but they were clearly men! It reminded me of the cross-dressing fashion show in which I participated last summer at my work.

I’m aware that these descriptions suck. Live performances are basically indescribable, especially something as different and exciting as what I saw here. The good news is that I took many pictures and even some videos! The bad news is that I’m still at an internet café, and I don’t know how to upload them, really. Sorry. Someday!

“Do you like our indigenous music?” Sammy asked me.

“Yes! I love it!” I replied.

“What do you like about it?” he questioned. “How does it compare to Western music, like hip hop or jazz? Do you like it better than Ghana’s Hiplife modern music?”

“I like how upbeat and joyful it is. Can you hear it? Every song, every beat, every dance move is joyful, full of life and energy. Your Hiplife music is nice, but it sounds too much like what we have in America, like hip hop. But this indigenous music is SO different! I love how different it is. I love the novelty.”

“Ah, I see. I like how different it is from what they play on the radio, too,” said Sammy with a smile.

Each group was scheduled to play at least one more time, but Hannah complained that she was tired and asked if we could go. Part of me was disappointed to leave early, because I was enjoying myself so much, but the other part was a bit relieved, because I was also tired, and dizzy from not having eaten dinner. We found a trotro right away and made it back to the house by 9:30.

If I had been able to stay until the end, I would have liked to introduce myself to Gonje’s hot drummer. Oh well. I really enjoyed the performances I saw. It was such an unforgettable night! :)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Captain America's true identity

Most of my Class 4 boys are obsessed with drawing comics of their favorite superheroes. They have a couple books with comics of these superheroes that I’ve never heard of before now, like Ben 10, Atom Man, Rin Tin, Captain America, etc., and I’ve had to confiscate their drawing books too many times after catching them drawing in class. During breaks or free periods, they’ll be huddled around a desk, copying drawings from their comic books. It’s so cute, I say.

Anyway, for their spelling homework, they must write their list words in alphabetical order, find the definitions for the words, and use each word in a sentence, so that on Friday they will be prepared to take their tests. This past Friday, when Dodzi turned in his spelling homework book, he waited until everyone else had turned in their books, and carefully placed his on the top so that I’d mark his first.

Dodzi is quite adorable. He’s one of the smartest kids in his class, and always does amazingly well on his homework and tests. He’s also very obedient in class and hardly ever talks out of turn. He knows all the answers in class, and when he raises his hand to ask a question, I like to call on him because he always asks smart questions related to what we’re talking about (unlike some kids who raise their hands just to ask me what my favorite color is).

This week, one of their spelling list words was “actually.” This was Dodzi’s sentence:

  1. Captain America is actually Dodzi.

I was sitting at my table grading their homework while Sister Suzy taught maths, and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud.

I had no idea that one of my students has a superhero alter-ego!

Friday, March 20, 2009


On Wednesday, I talked to one of the teachers, Madam Lizzy, as I tried to help some of my girls who were in trouble. I asked her please not to lash them, but she was so angry at the girls that my pleas didn’t move her. Sister Dorothy was standing nearby, and after Lizzy went back into her classroom, she lectured me for a few minutes on how Ghanaian children need the cane in order to behave, that they don’t know how to respect or keep quiet without the cane. Basically, what I got from her was that Ghanaian children need to be “controlled” (she actually used that word) and are incapable of being good unless they are whipped into submission.

I wanted to cry. I can’t believe that these kids are being brainwashed into thinking this! Sometimes, when they’re noisy in class, I become very frustrated and ask why they’re making so much noise.

“It’s because you don’t use the cane!” they admit. “Miss Kate, you should lash us so we’ll be good.”

In 4B, they were being a little noisy during class that morning. We were supposed to be learning about the present perfect tense, but some lessons are more important than even grammar. I told them briefly about my conversation with Sister Dorothy, how she thinks that Ghanaian children can’t be good unless they’re caned.

“I don’t believe this,” I told them. “I know that each and every one of you is so good deep down. Even if you make noise and do bad things, it doesn’t mean you’re bad. You’re good.” I looked at their eyes as I said this, and I noticed that they all were listening attentively. I continued, “But if you don’t start acting like it, no one else will believe it. If you want people to respect you, first you must respect yourself. Who remembers what they said in worship this morning about the greatest commandment?”

Henry raised his hand. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” he recited.

“Thank you! Clap for Henry.” The class clapped their African clap for him. Clap. Clap. Clap clap clap. Clap. “This means that you should treat other people the way you want them to treat you. Do you want someone to talk while you’re talking?” I said.

“No,” they chanted.

“Then why do you talk when I’m talking?” I went on to give them examples of behaviors that they shouldn’t do. Do they like it when someone hits them? Insults them? Doesn’t share with them? Then why do they do that very thing they don’t like being done to them to other people?

“It all comes down to this... please respect yourselves. If you respect yourself, you will respect other people, and if you respect other people, it means you respect yourself. How many of you want to become heroes?” I asked.

Every boys’ hand shot into the air. We talked about the heroes they wanted to become. Spiderman. Superman. Batman. Ben 10. Atom Man. I named some of my personal “heroes,” real people, my friends in America who are really awesome. Why are those guys my heroes? I described to the class the ways in which my friends are my heroes. They behave like gentlemen. They don’t use foul language or insult people. If I’m feeling cold, they let me use their jacket. If we go somewhere, they open the door for me. They treat me with respect. They never get into fights for no reason, but if a bad guy ever tried to hurt me, I know my heroes wouldn’t let them.

What do all of these men have in common? “They all treat other people with respect. They fight for goodness, to defend other people. If you want to become a hero like Spiderman or Batman or my heroes, you have to respect other people. You have to respect yourself.”

I looked around at all the girls in the room. “How many of you want to become ladies when you grow up? Princesses?” All the girls raised their hands. “If you want to be a lady, then you need to respect yourself. You need to respect other people. Treat everyone with kindness and do to them what you want them to do to you. Think about all the princesses in the movies. Were any of them mean? Did any of them insult people or beat their friends? No! They respected other people. They were kind to everyone, and they respected themselves.”

When we finally got back to the present perfect tense, I noticed they were much quieter than usual. Whenever one did speak out of turn, I just reminded him or her, “Ah! You’re not respecting yourself!” and the room became wonderfully quiet.

I repeated the lesson when I had class in 4A. When one of the kids, Akyena, was talking, I went to his table and said sharply, “Akyena! You don’t respect me!”

He instantly became very quiet. He looked at me and said, with as much sincerity as a nine-year-old is capable of, “Miss Kate, I do respect you.”

“Then why are you talking? If you respect me, then you won’t talk when I’m talking.”

I didn’t hear a word from Akyena for the rest of the period (unless I called on him, of course).

This happened a with a few students, but after each reprimand, the student who was talking became quiet for the rest of the lesson. It made me feel so... respected. Without a cane! I don’t know if it will last, but I’m hoping and praying it does, that these kids can learn to respect me and to respect themselves. They shouldn’t let themselves be caned.

At school’s closing, I was looking for some of the girls who were in trouble with Madam Lizzy, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. A few minutes later, I saw them running towards me from the volleyball court, completely out of breath.

“Miss Kate! A dog almost bit Nana Ama!” Ohemaa shouted.

“It’s true! We were walking back from the bathroom and it started chasing her!” Karen exclaimed.

“What?! Nana Ama, are you okay, sweetheart? Did it bite you?”

“It didn’t bite me, but it almost did!” Nana Ama said, and she was shaking all over. She looked like she was about to cry. I know that feeling! I glanced over and noticed the dog had gone to sit next to the open gate between the school’s compound and the convent’s yard.

Sister Dorothy happened to be coming out of a nearby classroom, and shouted at the girls for chasing the dogs. They breathlessly explained that they had just been walking back from the bathroom when the dog chased Nana Ama for no reason. I became very mad, because the dogs are supposed to be locked up during the day. The nuns are often negligent on this point. (Last month, one of the Class 2A boys had been chased by a dog when he went to the bathroom during French class.) I know exactly how terrifying it is to be chased by dogs, so I told Sister Dorothy, perhaps a bit too sternly, that these dogs must be kept locked up when children are around.

“If you don’t like it, make it go back inside,” Sister Dorothy said.

“Fine!” I shouted. I strode forward and picked up a big stick that was lying on the ground. When the dog saw me approaching, it sauntered back into the yard. I was suddenly filled with such a rage at that dog for attacking my Nana Ama! I bolted across the compound, running as fast as I could, stick in hand raised like a spear. When I whipped around the gate and into the yard, angry as a mother bear, the two dogs who were standing there took off running. I hurled the stick at them with all my might. It didn’t hit them, but I think they were pretty freaked out. They disappeared into the side yard.

I’d like to add that this was the closest I’ve ever come to hurting a dog. Even in the depths of my hatred for dogs, I never touched one. I’ve started carrying a stick around the yard when I’m walking alone for protection, but I’ve never actually had to use it on the dogs. If a dog comes too close, I just smack the stick onto the ground, which scares the dog enough to keep it from biting me. I don’t see the point of hitting a dog unless it’s for self-defense. Karma!

When I came back into the school compound, I was greeted by cheers from children of all classes. “Aye, Auntie Kate! You can run, proper!” Kids left and right congratulated me, amazed to see a teacher running at top speed like that.

Nana Ama ran to me and gave me a huge hug, thanking me. The other Class 4 girls gathered around, putting their arms around me and telling me that they couldn’t believe that I just ran across the compound so fast like that.

“Of course! I couldn’t just let that dog almost bite Nana Ama!”

“You’re a hero, Miss Kate!” Ohemaa exclaimed. “You’re a hero just like your hero!”

“You’re my hero, Miss Kate!” Nana Ama said. “Oh, thank you!”

Indeed, I did feel like a hero just then, fighting for goodness, fighting to protect my students from the evil dogs. I kind of like being a hero. It’s a good feeling. :)

Thursday, March 19, 2009


A couple days ago, I came back from lunch break to find several of my girls crying at their desks. When I asked what was wrong, Ohemaa tearfully explained the trouble they were in. Apparently her little first grade sister, Eno, had brought a toy comb and mirror and was playing with them in class, and one of her classmates, Demetria, tattled on her. Eno’s toys were confiscated and Eno was made to stand outside of the classroom for the rest of the period. After Ohemaa found her sister crying during lunch break, she and her friends ganged up on little Demetria, lecturing her that she shouldn’t have gotten Eno into trouble. When the Class 1 teacher, Madam Lizzy, found out about this, she sent someone to call the fourth grade girls. Through some miscommunication, they didn’t come right away, which pissed Lizzy off quite a bit. When the girls finally showed up at her classroom, Madam Lizzy told them that she would tell Sir Tony to cane them in front of the whole school at the next assembly for not respecting a teacher.

“I won’t come to school tomorrow!” Ohemaa sobbed. “I don’t want to be lashed in front of the school!”

“I don’t want you to be lashed, either!” I said, wiping the tears off her pretty little cheeks with my fingertips.

“Miss Kate, please, we beg you, plead with Madam Lizzy! Tell her not to make Sir Tony lash us!” the other girls cried. About half of the Class Four girls were in trouble. How could I just stand around and let them be lashed without at least trying to stand up for them?

The next morning, I talked to Madam Lizzy about it. She became quite heated when she told me her side of the story. I told her I understood why she was angry and that what the girls did was wrong, but I pleaded with her not to lash them, to give them another punishment instead. She shook her head, and told me she would call them all forward during assembly tomorrow so they could explain in front of the whole school what they did and why it was wrong.

At school’s closing, I gathered the girls who were in trouble with Madam Lizzy and explained to them why she was punishing them. When the girls realized they were going to be called forward and humiliated in front of the whole school, they burst into tears.

“Oh, Miss Kate! Please don’t let them disgrace us in front of the whole school! That’s even worse than being lashed!”

“You’re the ones who have disgraced yourselves by acting the way you did,” I said calmly. “Listen, you are all good girls. I know this. But what you did was not good.”

“Miss Kate, you don’t understand!” and they explained to me in detail what happened. I acted as sort of the mediator, telling them what Madam Lizzy had said, and as we talked it out, we realized that there was a big miscommunication between them. They asked me to tell her what really happened, but I reminded them that I had already tried talking to her about it. “Why don’t you girls go and explain to her what happened?” I suggested. We had talked about it for so long that only four of the punished girls remained; the rest had already gone home.

“That’s a good idea. Let’s go talk to her,” Karen said boldy. But Ohemaa wrapped her arms around me, sobbing into my side, and begged me to go with them because she was too afraid to go alone.

“No, we should be the ones to talk to her,” Karen said. “Come on, let’s go. Let’s go talk to Madam Lizzy.”

“Miss Kate, please come with us, just to watch,” Ohemaa said, clinging to my hand.

“No,” Karen insisted, “we must do this on our own. If Miss Kate comes, the trouble might get worse.”

“Oh, okay,” said Ohemaa, and she was visibly shaking with fear. “But Miss Kate, can you please be nearby for support?”

“I’ll be standing right here. You girls can do it! But, before you go, a word of advice,” I said seriously, and the girls huddled around me. “I recommend you start with an apology. I strongly recommend you start with an apology. Apologize first, before you say anything else. Say you’re sorry before you explain what happened. Okay? Go for it. Good luck!”

Filled with dread, the Karen, Ohemaa, Nana Ama, and Makeba held hands and headed towards Class 1. I waited down the hall, and a few minutes later, I heard them running towards me. They threw their arms around me when they reached me, thanking me endlessly.

“We are saved! We are saved!” they chanted, dancing around, hugging each other, as though they just found out their village would be spared of deadly plague. They breathlessly told me what happened, reenacting how they apologized to Madam Lizzy, and describing her reaction.

“She said she forgives us!” they said, completely overjoyed. They all hugged and kissed me, thanking me for saving them.

“It wasn’t me! You were the ones who talked to her!” I said.

“But you’re the one who encouraged us and told us what to say!” Karen said. “We couldn’t have done it without you!”

“Miss Kate, you’re a hero!” Ohemaa said, and she kissed my cheek a dozen times.

“You’re the ones who were brave enough to go apologize!” I said. “But I’m so very glad you won’t be lashed or disgraced! What did you learn from this? First of all, I hope you learned how important apologies are. Apologies can go so far! They are so powerful!” I said.

“Yes, Miss Kate! We learned that we can be forgiven if we’re really sorry!” Karen said, and her eyes were glistening with tears of joy.

“Secondly, I hope you learned something about forgiveness. Madam Lizzy forgave you when you wronged her. What do you have to do for other people, now, when other people do something wrong to you?”

“Forgive them!” they chanted.

“That’s right! Also, you know if you had run away or not come to school, the trouble would only have been worse. Running away from your problems doesn’t solve them. You need to face your problems.”

“Oh, thank you, Miss Kate!”

I’ve never felt so appreciated in my entire life. Those girls hugged me, thanked me again and again, told me how wonderful of a teacher I am, and promised to bring me nice gifts for my birthday. When I reminded them that all I want for my birthday is for them to follow all the rules in class and to do their homework, they promised that they would be so good and quiet during class.

“But what about the other girls who already went home? Will they be punished?” the four lucky ones asked themselves. None of us knew, until the following morning. The four who had apologized accompanied the others to Madam Lizzy’s classroom, and a few minutes later, I heard screaming. A couple of the girls ran in to tell me the good news that Madam Lizzy had forgiven them all!

After assembly, I walked in on Class Four A during morning prayer. They were singing a worship song like they usually do, but the girls who had been forgiven were clapping, dancing, and praising the Lord in the most sincere song of praise and thanksgiving that I’ve ever seen in my life!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Today is Hannah’s birthday. Hannah is the girl who lives in the room next to mine. She’s a student in Form One at the school (Form One is equivalent to 7th grade). She’s neither a nun nor planning on becoming one, but she lives at the convent to attend school and to do chores for the sisters around the house. When I first came to Ghana, she told me she was 16, but later I overheard someone saying she was 15, so I wasn’t sure quite how old she was. I knew that she was older than the rest of her classmates (most of whom are 11, 12, or 13), but since she’s so tiny, shorter than five feet, she doesn’t stand out too much.

I knew her birthday was this weekend, so I asked her how old she would be. I expected her to say 16 or 17.

“I’ll be 19,” she replied.

“19? So you’re 18 right now?”

She nodded. I was so surprised by this.

“You told me you were 16!” I said.

Hannah shrugged. “I was telling lies.”

19 seems a little young to be lying about one’s age, don’t you think? But I suppose I understand why. She graduated from primary (elementary) school last year, when she was 18. 18! Imagine being 18 in 6th grade! Now she’s 19, in the middle of her first year of secondary school – 7th grade. After this, she still has 5 years until she graduates high school! That would put her at age 24 when she finishes high school. Well, better late than never, I say.

I do feel sorry for her. It is true we are both non-nuns living in a convent... but I have freedom to come and go as I please. They give me a small allowance that allows me to go out and experience a little bit of Ghana when I want. Hannah has none of that. They treat her like a child, as though she actually were the same age as her 12-year-old classmates. They give her a little bit of money to buy the things she needs like soap or underwear, but not enough to go out and enjoy herself. Even when she wants to go out to visit a friend, she has to ask, and when she leaves without permission, the nuns get mad. They had given her an old cell phone that she used to call her family and friends in her hometown, but then they took it away. I think they just want to have more control over her.

For her birthday, I took her to Accra’s only shopping mall, a little bit of Western culture right in the middle of a very non-Western country. As we climbed into the trotro, she told me she had never been there before. This girl is 19 today, and she’s never been to the mall?

“The sisters don’t let me go out,” she explained.

I thought back to my 19th year. That summer, I was working the mall, at Hollister in the Los Cerritos Center. That summer was also the first time I went to Las Vegas with friends. I spent five months as a 19-year-old traveling about Europe. I went out all the time and did crazy things with my friends. Oh, nothing too crazy, but I did have that freedom to do what I wanted, and I learned sooooo much along the way.

Hannah was so excited to be going to the mall for the first time! She had requested that we go out for lunch, so I took her to the food court at the mall. I really wanted her to try some western food like a hamburger or a pizza, but when I asked her what she wanted, she said, “Fried rice.”

“I told you they don’t sell Ghanaian food here. There isn’t any fried rice!” I said.

“Yes there is. Look,” and she pointed to the Chinese buffet.

“You have fried rice all the time. Don’t you want to try something new?” I pleaded. She didn’t. There is something about picky eaters that really bugs me, especially if they refuse to try something they’ve never tasted before just because “it looks gross.” Hannah told me she had tried pizza before but didn’t like it. Okay, fair enough, but why not try a hamburger? She thought hamburgers “didn’t look nice.” If it hadn’t been her birthday, I would have forced her to try something new, but I wanted her to be happy on her birthday, so we ate Chinese. She kind of freaked out when she saw how expensive the meal was (it ended up being around Gh¢11 for everything, which is less than $10). She felt guilty that I spent so much money on her, but I told her it’s her birthday! That’s how we do it at my place.

I told her about my 19th birthday. It was my first birthday away from home, when I was going to college in Ohio. It also happened to fall on Easter Sunday. All of my friends had traveled to be with their families except me. My only friend who stayed on campus was my best friend Lauren, whose sister Kelly was visiting her. In the rush and excitement of the holidays, my birthday was basically forgotten. I stayed in my room for most of the day and did homework for Shakespeare class. I ate all my meals at the cafeteria by myself. Then, two things happened to make me smile. I got a phone call from switchboard telling me to pick up the flowers that had been sent there by my family. Flowers always make me so happy! Also, in the evening, Lauren called asking me to hang out in her room, and when I got to her dorm, I saw that she and Kelly had baked a cake for me. So thoughtful!

“So you see?” I said to Hannah. “Even though I was far away from my family and most of my friends on my 19th birthday, my friend Lauren made it very nice. Since your family can’t be here to help you celebrate, I’ll do something nice, just like Lauren did for me.”

We walked around the mall for a while, stopping into different stores that caught her interest. She was so amazed by everything she saw! Hannah does all her shopping at the market, you see, where everything is secondhand and just thrown into a pile for shoppers to look through. She kept repeating that everything in the mall was “so nice!” She was also amazed by how expensive everything was. True, we did enter a store selling designer shoes for Gh¢500. Another store imported Bath and Bodywork's body spray and marked up the price quite a bit. However, some of the stores had average prices for a mall, but for a girl like Hannah who bargains at the market to buy a pair of secondhand shoes for $4, even a $35 pair of shoes or a $20 shirt seems very highly priced!

After we had walked around for a while, she asked for ice cream, so we sat down and each had a little cup. When we went into Shoprite, the grocery store, just to look around, and saw an assortment of ceramic mugs for sell, she eyed them longingly. I told her she could pick one. She chose a beautiful cup with pink roses on it, and I bought it for her so she’d have something to help her remember her 19th birthday.

After the trotro had dropped us off at our junction and we were walking back that night, she told me that no one at the house cares that it’s her birthday. They didn’t do anything special for her. It was sadly true. There was no special meal, no cake, and I didn’t even hear any “Happy birthday, Hannah” (although it’s possible they said it out of my hearing).

“Would you rather have them celebrate it at the house, or go out with me to Shoprite?” I asked.

“Shoprite!” she said, and gave me a huge hug. “Thank you soooo much for making my birthday so happy!”

I was really glad I could help make her birthday special! I’ve been blessed with such amazing friends who have gone out of their way to make sure my birthday was celebrated each year, and now I’m paying it forward to Hannah, a little 19-year-old Ghanaian girl who finally had the chance to experience a mall for the first time.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You're beautiful

I’ve started telling my girls that they’re beautiful. When I find one of them alone during break time, I pull her aside and whisper it into her ear, asking her if she knew that. The surprised expressions on my students’ faces tell me they didn’t before their words do.

“What? How can you not know that?” I ask each of them.

“I didn’t know. I thought I was ugly. My friends at home tell me I am,” Elsie said. “I thought I was the ugly duckling.”

“Elsie, that’s not true! You are more beautiful than the most beautiful swan,” I told her.

“I didn’t know!” she said gratefully.

“I don’t think I’m beautiful because of this,” Immaculata said, pointing to a scar that cuts down her right cheek. I kissed her scar and assured her that the scar doesn’t matter, that she still is very beautiful.

For my Ghanaian-German student, Makeba, I tell her in our secret language: “Hu bist hübch.” (Special thanks to my dear friend Franka in Berlin for teaching me how to say “You are pretty” in German last last summer!) Makeba just shakes her head, but her smile tells me that maybe she is starting to believe it.

“Miss Kate, I’m not beautiful!” Nana Ama said when I told her. “Miss Kate, I’m ugly! I know it every time I look in the mirror!”

“Nope, you’re wrong. You are such a beautiful girl! You’re my shining star!” and I remind her of the time I went out to my roof here in Ghana and looked up at the stars. I saw one little star, shining so determinedly, that made me so happy to see. For some reason, when I saw that star, it reminded me of little Nana Ama. I told her about the star the next day in school, how that little star made me think about her, and I remind her of it often. “Nana Ama, you’re a beautiful shining star!”

“No, Miss Kate, I’m not beautiful,” she insists every time I tell her. I still have work to do with her.

It breaks my heart how many of them don’t realize how beautiful they really are. It is very important to me that they know. I want all of them to feel good about themselves and to realize their worth. I do everything I can to raise their self-esteem, because I know what wonderful things could happen if they have confidence in themselves.

You see, one of my inspirations in coming to Africa was Oprah Winfrey. One Christmas, she went to South Africa and gave presents to some orphans there. When I saw on TV how happy the children were and how happy Oprah was, it made me really want to go to Africa and volunteer somewhere working with children. That desire never left me, so I came to Africa to work with children the first chance I had.

Beyond that, I remember something Oprah said in another show years ago that has stayed with me for all this time. She had a special guest on her show. I don’t remember the guest’s name or who she was, but she was some slightly famous person, like a public speaker or an author or a politician or something. Apparently, she was giving a speech or something in Oprah’s town when Oprah was just a little girl, and at the end, young Oprah had the chance to meet her. This lady took Oprah’s little face in her hands, looked into her eyes, and said two simple words: “You’re beautiful.”

Years later, after Oprah had grown up into the amazing woman she is today, having achieved fame and fortune, this lady came Chicago to go on Oprah’s show as her special guest. Upon seeing her and hugging her, Oprah was filled with so much emotion that she started crying. She tearfully explained to the audience that she always thought she was ugly growing up, and when this lady gave her that affirmation and told her she was beautiful, it changed her life. No one had ever told her she was beautiful before then. She began to see herself differently and to believe that she was beautiful, and this gave her the confidence to go after her dreams of becoming a TV personality. When she had finally made it huge, she had the privilege of thanking this lady who had made the difference in her life on national television.

What about these girls? My girls? Who will give them the self-esteem that possibly could make all the difference between their selling plantains on the side of the road and their becoming the next Oprah Winfrey? Who will tell them they’re beautiful?

I will tell them. I won’t tell them because I expect any sort of reward or praise. It is unlikely that any of my students will become world famous billionaires, but they are daughters, sisters, friends, and one day may become wives, mothers, aunties, teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, businesswomen, etc. They can become anything they want to be. I don’t know if my telling them they’re beautiful will make a difference or not, but I will tell them anyway. I will tell them they’re beautiful because it’s the truth. I will tell them because they deserve to know. I will tell them because I love them. I was once a little girl, too.

“Asabea, you’re beautiful! Did you know that?” I asked.

“Miss Kate, I’m not beautiful; I’m ugly. I’m an ugly rat,” Asabea said.

“That’s not true! Who told you that?” I said.

“The teachers.”

“What?! Which teachers?”

“The maths teacher, Sister Suzy,” she said. Immaculata and Maame were standing nearby and overheard.

“Miss Kate, it’s true!” they said. “Sister Suzy tells us we’re ugly.”


“When she comes into the classroom, she says, ‘Look at all these ugly faces,’ and she always says, ‘Your ugly face, your ugly face. Your face is ugly like mine.’ It makes us think we’re ugly.”

Can you imagine how outraged I was to hear this?

“It’s not true!” I declared, and carefully hugged each girl. “You are all so beautiful! Don’t listen to her.”

But, really! What normal adult tells nine-year-old boys and girls that they’re ugly? That is so unchristian! I haven’t yet confronted Sister Suzy about this, but I will. She is seriously such a wicked witch. I say she should turn in her veil for a pointy hat and her rosary for a broomstick. I can totally picture her flying around Haatso surrounded by flying monkeys and terrorizing young children. She’s off to a good start, you know. She already lashes them when the get the answers wrong in maths class and tells them how “ugly” they are... all she needs now is a broomstick and warts, and she could be the wickedest witch of all.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Independence Day

Ghana was the first African country to gain independence from the British on March 6th, 1957. I thought today would be an appropriate day to write a little about the history of Ghana, but as it turns out, I’m too tired.

Today, we took some of our kids to the park to march and had a swell time. But I’m also too tired to write about this right now.

I’ll write more later. When? I don’t know. I have so much to write about, but I’m going to be SO busy for the next few days. Blah.

Happy Independence Day, Ghana!

(What a great blog!)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Candy, Corruption, & Coffee

I made a new friend today on my way to the immigration office. Her name is Candy. We had shared a taxi to Atomic Junction, and she happened to sit next to me on the trotro to Accra. She was determined to make sure that the mate gave me the correct change, and then struck up a conversation with me. She makes things – beads, bracelets, keychains, tie-dye, and dresses. She reached into her purse and pulled out a darling keychain made of beads strung in the shape of a little man. I told her it was really cute.

“Do you like it? You can have it,” she said, and handed it to me.

She told me she wants to go to school, but she doesn’t have enough money yet. She lives with some people who are not her real parents, but who don’t let her go out (even though she’s 24). She lives with them and makes little crafts and sells them or gives them away. I asked her what she wants to learn at school. I expected her to say “nursing” or “teaching” or “computers” or some other major one can study at a university. I was shocked by her answer.

“I want to learn how to read and write,” she said, and explained: “My mother left me when I was two months old, so my grandmother raised me. She didn’t have enough money to send me to school, so I never learned how to read or write. I never knew my father.”

This just kind of blew me away. Literacy is something I completely take for granted. I told her I’d teach her how to read and write, and she smiled and nodded.

I went to the immigration office to renew my visa. The last time I went, in December, they charged me GH¢100, which seems like a lot. When I picked up my passport a couple weeks later, they had stapled on a receipt. On the receipt, it said that each month costs Gh¢20, and that the total they charged me was Gh¢60... 40 less than I had actually paid.

“That is the price it says,” Evelyn, the immigration officer, explained, “but the extra Gh¢40 is to make sure the work gets done. You understand, don’t you?”

I didn’t.

“We’re in Africa. It’s not like the white man, where there is a certain price and you pay it. In Ghana, you have to pay a little extra to motivate and to get the work done. If you don’t pay it, they won’t do the work.”

“Oh. You mean like a bribe? I think I understand.”

But I left the office feeling very, very down, so down, in fact, that I cried when I sat on the trotro. I’m the kind of person who prefers to believe the best in everyone. I believe that humankind is good, that the world is beautiful place populated with beautiful people. I’m aware that corruption exists all over the world, but to experience it first hand like this just put me down. It’s not even about the money as much as the fact that people working at the immigration office only do their job if they can sneak extra money into their pockets.

I thought about the corruption. I thought about my new friend, Candy, who is 24 and can’t even read or write because her parents abandoned her when she was just a baby. I thought about the notes that two of my students slipped into my bag at school just as I was rushing out the door to go to the immigration office. One said, “Do you know that it is true that everyone hates me. I am just an animal called cow. Beacuse Brian alway tell my brother lies so that my mother will beat me. Everyone hates me. What a poor girl. I will kill myself.” My sweet, sweet student wants to kill herself because her friends tease her and her mother beats her! I couldn’t believe it. The other note said, “Miss Kate, I feel like you been my elder sister because any time I am at home I do not feel comfortable. They say I am foolish, mad, sack, stupid girl and that I am a thief. Please, I beg you in secret please be my elder sister. Yes/No.” My other student lives with her “wicked stepmother,” as she has written of her in the very angry poems she wrote for composition class, in a family life where everyone puts her down. What kind of world do I live in? Where is the love?

I stopped by Accra’s only shopping mall, a place that reminds me of the U.S. It’s the most American thing I’ve seen here. It has a big grocery store with all types of imported food, different clothing boutiques selling either African or Western-style clothing, electronics stores, a store selling eyeglasses displaying an amazing picture of Patrick Dempsey wearing sexy Armani glasses, a perfume/cologne shop, a wine and spirits store, and my favorite, a real-life bookstore!

I browsed the bookstore for a while, which took my mind off of the sad state of the world, and as I lost myself in the pages of the books I picked up, I became very happy again. The books were marked up ridiculously, some paperback books being sold for about $30, but I didn’t need to buy anything to be happy. I just love picking up books that catch my eye and reading them.

I also love drinking coffee. I went to the mall’s food court where I found a real coffee shop! I sat at a table and drank a café mocha, frothily delicious and just what I needed. I imagined my future living in a big, developed city somewhere like San Francisco or Paris, drinking coffee every day as I people watch and lose myself in the crowd. Suddenly, the world seemed like a marvelous place again, and I felt quite happy to be alive. I guess all I need is coffee and books to get that joie de vivre again.

Monday, March 2, 2009


It’s TOO hot here. Yuck.

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, at like 1:46 or something, and it was so hot I couldn’t fall back to sleep. The fan was going full blast, but it didn’t help. I took off all my clothes and blankets, but that didn’t help either. I tossed and turned for a couple hours, wondering why God hates Ghana so much. Finally, I got up, put on some clothes, and went out to the roof, hoping the crisp night air would help cool me down. The night air, however, was neither crisp nor cool. There was no breeze whatsoever. I unzipped my jacket and flashed all of Haatso, but everyone was sleeping so no one noticed the snow white of my chest, which was glistening with sweat. I just wanted to cool off enough to fall back asleep. Nothing worked!

I stumbled back into the house, so tired I could barely walk straight. I tried to move my bed so that it was directly under the fan, but it was too heavy and too loud to move more than a foot away from the wall without waking up the whole house. Still, the room was so hot I almost wished I were in Russia... almost. I thought about my life a year ago, when I lived at 800 Belleview and needed two pairs of pajama pants, two pairs of socks, a hoodie, four comforters, two blankets, and a space heater to keep warm at night... and sometimes, I still woke up in the middle of the night from being too cold. (I’m pretty sure God hates Ohio, too. I don’t know why.) Okay, as much as I HATE being too hot at night, as much as I prefer diving into cold sheets and warming the bed with my own body heat, the coziness of my blankets fighting against the chill of winter... the only thing worse that waking up from being too hot is waking up from being too cold. Ghana is better than Russia. But still!

I lied awake until at least 4 something. When my alarm went off an hour or two later at 5:55, I wanted to kill myself. I was SO tired I could barely move. I discovered that I have dozens of mosquito bites on my legs and feet. I also discovered today that one of my housemates has malaria. Great. I hope that my malaria pills work! Ridiculous heat and malaria... why does God hate Ghana?

I had a really good day at school, however, and after closing, four of my girls plaited my hair in “rasta” braids. “We’re making you an Afrowoman!” Nana Ama said enthusiastically as she, Ohemaa, Lisa, and Immaculata surrounded me where I sat at my desk, braiding away. When they had finished, my head was covered in little braids. Lisa braided the little braids into three bigger braids, and then braided that into one big mess of a braid by the back of my neck. “Miss Kate, your hair looks beautiful!” Nana Ama exclaimed when she saw the finished product. I didn’t have a mirror, so I’ll just trust her judgement. I love when people play with my hair, so whenever my students ask to touch or to plait my hair, I always let them. My kids are fascinated by my obruni hair, which is long and thick and wavy. At first, they asked me if it were my real hair, and always seemed so surprised when I told them it was. (Most Ghanaian women use wigs or have fake extensions sewn onto circular cornrows.) Also, none of the students at Ancilla have long hair. It’s part of the dress code. Every student, male or female, has the same short, buzzed haircut. At first it was weird to me that the girls had such short hair, but I’m used to it now.

I’ve been here for 21 weeks. 150 days or so. I’m leaving in 21 weeks, in 150 days. I’m halfway through my stay here. Strange. When I think about it, four-and-half months doesn’t seem very long. Really, it’s nothing! However, when I compare it to how long I’ve been here... somehow, it feels like I’ve been in Ghana forever. It’s just weird being “halfway through” a journey in life. The second half always passes faster than the first, I’ve noticed, and I know I’ll be home before I know it. In the meantime, I’m trying to make the most of each day I have here with the people and places I’ve grown to love in Ghana.

Anyway, I hope it’s cooler tonight so I can sleep through the night!