Greetings – I am anxious to finish this blog about Ghana – because I have been on more journeys, and have additional places and experiences to share with you – my readers!
Kakum National Park: Kakum National Park is a nature lovers paradise. It is located about 12 miles north of Cape Coast and covers over 220+ miles of Ghana’s undisturbed rainforest – which unfortunately is rapidly disappearing. It is largely a moist evergreen rainforest with tall hardwood trees that reach over 100-200 feet in height. For more detailed information about the park, species of plants and wildlife check out: https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/tourism/kakum.php
I initially said I wasn’t interested in going to Kakum National Park in Ghana, because I had heard about the Canopy Walkway which is a series of rope bridges over the tree tops at 100 feet high. I have few fears, but height is one of them. I’ve lived in a high-rise, duplex on the 11th floor and was able to somewhat comfortably use my 12th floor wrap-around terrace. I’ve worked on the 59th floor, and practiced roof top fire drills, and in my youth I even walked across the George Washington Bridge…but that was all with a solid surface underneath…this was a rope bridge with a narrow plank to walk on. At any rate, at the encouragement from my sister friend Sherry I decided to face and overcome my fears. For me this trip was about connecting with my ancestral roots, taking risks, stepping out on faith and letting go!
The Canopy Walk opened on Earth Day in 1995, and consists of a series of suspension bridges with over 1,000 feet of walkway that hang from the trees over 130 feet above the ground. We doused ourselves in insect repellent with DEET, and some of us even wore coiled repellent bracelets on our ankles and wrists and began the trek up the hill. There was a long, steep climb to get to the canopy walk. We started as a group and gradually branched out into different groupings… At first it was a brisk, and stimulating hike up the hills, and even the sisters who needed canes or assistance were joining us. Then after a while the path became much steeper. Several sisters dropped off and went back down to the ground level. Yours truly kept on… I felt like a mountain climber in training for the Olympics. My sister/friend Bernadette grabbed a stick to use as a walking stick and I did the same. I truly felt like I was on a journey. It was hot, humid, and with sweat mixed with insect repellent – I felt sticky and icky – needless to say, I was literally a hot mess. But, I kept on pushing forward. There were two rest stops along the way – small wooden structures where you could sit and catch your breath. At one of those stops – there were two young African brothers looking very cool and refreshed – checking us out sweating, panting and ready to drop. When we finally got to the top it felt like such a victory – until I saw those bridges in front of me. Panic set in and I thought I CAN’T do this!!! As folks were waking on the bridge it was swaying from side to side. I thought about walking back down, but I remembered I came here with the intent of conquering my fear of height – so I knew without a shadow of a doubt, I had to do it.
There was a choice of paths – there was one main bridge and then if you turned left at the end of the first bridge you went across 3 bridges, and if you turned right you went across 7 bridges. I chose the shortest route – 3 bridges. I thought we would go across one person at a time, but multiple people were on the bridge with you making it move even more. As soon as I put one foot on the bridge I was practically in tears – I started praying out loud “OH Allah” …everybody said “DON”T LOOK DOWN!!!” What – I had to look down… I had to know/see firsthand how high I was and what I was actually walking over… OMG!! The fear, panic and anxiety were real. My girl Sherry was up ahead of me doing acrobatic poses and I was yelling – “please keep going”. I pulled myself forward with my arms as my feet somehow managed to move in front of me one step at a time…My fear propelled me – plus I couldn’t go back – there were sisters behind me – so little by little I crossed bridge after bridge and trust me I was thrilled when I saw the last step and then and only then I put my hands up in the air!! FYI: After my Canopy Walk experience, I learned although the bridges appear as though they are constructed like a traditional rope bridge, the spans are made of wire rope, aluminum, and wooden planks, with safety netting to protect people from falls.
Village of Atonkwa: Naming Ceremony & School Visit: En route to the village of Atonkwa where we were scheduled to participate in a traditional naming ceremony we had a “stuck in the mud experience.” It had rained heavily the day before, and the dirt road was full of ditches and muddy water. As our van bounced along on the bumpy dirt road we eventually got stuck in the mud. We saw local villagers – brothers walking alone and sisters with babies on their back and bundles on their head walk straighf on thru red, muddy water up to their v
It was a lesson in patience, as our driver and tour guide called for help and eventually a pick-up truck with brothers came and helped us along our way… including a nice brother named Jerome, wearing a t-shirt I loved – with the phrase “Black since 1966”, who gifted me with a handmade bracelet. They pulled us out of the mud and we were on our way to the village to meet the Council of Elders…
The Council of Elders consisted of 12 members including the Chief. However, since we were so late due to our “stuck in the mud” experience – the Chief had to leave, and we were welcomed by the Assistant Chief and 10 additional elders. There was a large section chairs set up for the women of the village, and they arrived in varying African garb from young to older. A section of chairs was also set up for us the guests and we walked in and took a seat, only to be told that we unknowingly rude – and we were not to be seated until we First greeted the elders. We all stood up immediately, walked over to the elders and shook their right hand, while holding our left hand behind our back. I shook the hands of the brothers, and hugged my sisters – and called then my Auntie’s. It was a very emotional moment for me. The Assistant Chief asked us individually why we were here and I thought of my ancestors who were forcibly captured and taken from their/our homeland, and I replied as tears streamed down my cheeks – “I wanted to come HOME.” I felt every step of this trip as though I had truly come full circle. This was a necessary trip for my personal growth and development. In fact, it was overdue. The villagers welcome us with traditional drumming, while 2 brothers danced in ceremonial attire. One of the brothers was also a fire-eater and incorporated many aspects of fire in his dance.
After the dancing and drumming, a small table was set-up for the traditional Akan naming ceremony. Names have great significance in African culture and society. In Ghana your first name is based on your gender and the day of the week you were born. Each of us were called up one by one, and an Akan – Fante name was bestowed upon us. A wisdom leaf was dipped in some type of alcohol (whiskey, I think). We were instructed to open our mouth, and as the brother held the leaf over our mouth and the alcohol dropped onto our tongue, our FANTE name was pronounced and we repeated it. Then the elders clapped and hollered out traditional chants… The name given to me was Efua Nkrumah. Efua means girl born on Friday, and Nkrumah means wisdom – and is also the name of Ghana’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. This name was extra special to me and has also great meaning to me, because Kwame Nkrumah is also my Lincoln University brother – which is the first University I attended.
In 1975 I chose an Arabic name “Habeebatullah Shaheed” which many people still know me by – however; in my growth after learning about the role of the Arab colonization and enslavement in Africa, I generally stopped using that name. I felt that I should have an indigenous African name to represent who I am and what I believe in. Efua Nkrumah does just that for me. I am not sure if I will undergo the official name change again – but it is affirming to me knowing an African chief in a traditional village bestowed upon me an indigenous name which honors my birth and one of their greatest leaders. Afterwards we greeted our sisters and took pictures and prepared to visit the village school. It was such a heart-warming experience to meet and greet the elders and feel and share the love and warmth.
Atunkwa Village School: A short distance away was the village school. The educational system in Ghana has levels beginning with grades: Kinder 3, 4, & 5, then Primary class 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5, followed by Jr High class 6, 7, & 8, followed by College – which is the equivalent of High School in the US. However, when talking to a Ghanaian brother who lives and works in the US, he informed me that their college is typically far more advanced and rigorous than high school in the US. Most government jobs in Ghana require graduation from college; while those students who complete “college” are bound for the University.
Many of us on this trip brought a variety of books, pencils, and other school supplies to supplement their school library and provide basic supplies to the children. Marlene, our trip organizer informed us that their library could use a boost so we wanted to help! As a life-long educator, and lover of children I was very excited to visit the school, see the classrooms and meet the children. English is the common language taught in the schools so I looked forward to conversing with the children. We divided our supplies so that we could all personally give some out to the children in their classrooms, along with candy or lollipops, since candy is a universal treat.
We began with a talk by the Head Mistress of the school, who shared their current water dilemma (there was no running water at the time in the school) and asked us to help them financially with they current water crisis. After we clarified our purpose, and mission we presented the school with a large array of books to supplement their scanty library. We were mindful to donate books that were culturally reflective of the children themselves. Yet, I saw a number of children’s picture books on the library shelves with White characters, with red hair or blue eyes and I wondered what cultural connection the Ghanaian children could possibly make to those images. The key is balance – providing many books that are culturally reflective, and others that expose the students to diverse places, people and cultures. The library was organized numerically and the books were perfectly aligned on the shelves in clusters – appearing as if the books were there more for decoration than use. It reminded me of the many classrooms I visit in the US where teachers are “hoarders” of books and school materials and they are more for display than student use. I wasn’t sure if the children had free access to these books here either. Hmm, it made me wonder is this an international phenomenon?
When we entered the classrooms I was struck by how sparse they were. I spent most of my time in the classrooms for the younger students, and there were minimal materials compared to our standards in the US. Each classroom had a chalk board, a few charts on the wall, a small amount of paper, a few pens and crayons, along with a teacher’s desk and tables and chairs. We were informed that their school system was based on the British system, one of their former colonizers. This particular school was a Catholic school, which is common throughout the country. There didn’t appear to be any hands-on materials for exploring, manipulation, or role-playing; which are commonly found in my prior experiences. I would love to spend time with their administration and teachers to first understand their system, curriculum, activities and then work with them to enhance their program. We can truly learn from one another. Additionally, I would love to create an international educational project that assists others in constructing a culturally reflective, developmentally appropriate, early childhood curriculum that incorporates their local artisans, crafts-people, celebrations and cultural traditions.
The children were loving, sweet-natured and friendly. The tradition is for the girls to have their hair cut very short to attend public school so that there is no jealousy or envy over who has a better or prettier hairstyle. The natural beauty shines through the sun-kissed faces of the girls and boys. I had hundreds of pencils to distribute – and in the classrooms in an orderly fashion, every child got both a yellow and a pretty pencil. After leaving the classrooms with an arm full of pencils – I was almost “mobbed” – not in a hurtful way, but I was surrounded by about a hundred children – pleading, and grabbing for pencils. I started handing them out as hands reached for them – only to find out some children were getting many and others were getting none. The uniforms, short hair cuts and crowd blinded me as to who had already received. Eventually, I had to stop completely to gain control of the situation. It was not a good feeling – I felt like a missionary distributing goods to the locals. In the future, I would rather come empty-handed FIRST to spend time with the children, read to them, engage with them without the dynamics of materialism. Then afterwards, I would rather leave materials with them. It would feel more genuine and personal than like a charitable mission!
When we returned to the van we were all reflecting on the day and sharing our experiences. One of the sisters Bernadette told us the day had been life-changing for her and she had discussed how she could support one student in particular. She had already received information on this particular student and what she could provide to help. This sparked an interest in many of us to help out with specific children. We shared with our tour guide and the Head of the School our interests and the ages and possible genders of children we could help. Arrangements were made and families who could use a little extra help or support came to meet us with the head Master of the school. It felt like a extended family sponsor/adoption day.
When we asked the cost to support a child’s education it was so minimal to us, based on salaries and costs and in the US. It’s all relative. It costs about $85 per year (US dollars) to have 3 uniforms made and purchase all exercise books and textbooks. At that rate, I decided to take on the responsibility for more than one child. I became a “Mama” to 3 more girls – My girls are Efua (5 years old and my Akan name sake), her sister Aba (8 years old) and another girl Perpetual (who is 17 years old). The combined cost for all three girls was only $250.00 a year. I feel blessed to be able to help, and pray the connection with these girls and families grows over the years into a life-long, supportive and mutually affirming relationship. We all can learn and grow from our diverse interactions and connections! Now onto another school…
Esbina Educational Centre; Malam, Accra
This is an independent school run by a beautiful, dedicated sister named Esther Amankwa. She is a positive, visionary who wanted to make a difference for the local children. She started this school with her own funds for children from the local village who were not in school or couldn’t afford to buy uniforms or pay fees for school. She began with 3 children and now has over 60 children enrolled. This school is 100% free to the families, and Sister Esther supplies the uniforms and all exercise and text books.
Sister Esther is a traditionally trained Batik artist and she conducts workshops, classes and sells batik fabric to raise money to support her school. We were so fortunate for her to provide us with a full afternoon learning the art and craft of Batik. She talked about the history of Batik, the traditional materials used, and the intricate patterns and designs, including Adinkra symbols. We all created beautiful batiks on cotton fabric squares, as well as on garments we brought with us. For our demonstration workshop, we only used a few colors, but Batiks can be created with unlimited colors through blending and mixing different colored dyes.
After this wonderful lesson and experience with Batik, we visited the classrooms of her school. The students and teachers were anxious and excited to meet us. There was a positive, upbeat energy that permeated the classrooms. It reminded me of the zest that exists when a new school or program opens and everyone is on board and positively charged and energized. The students recited poems, verses and sang multiple songs with movement for us. We were all touched by their performance and the amount of hard work and preparation that went into their presentations. You could see the feeling of pride on their faces and it touched my heart!
I applaud Sister Esther Amankwa for having the vision, fortitude and determination to open and run this school. Although the 3 girls I am sponsoring attend another school and I will certainly continue to support them, I also want to do whatever is in my power to help Sister Esther with her school. If you are interested in providing books, resources or other support to Esbina Educational Centre, please contact me directly for her information.
In my final post on Ghana – I will take you up close and personal to 2 slave castle/dungeons: Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle.