Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Allow me to introduce you ...

The children are individuals to me now, no longer a mass of orange and black uniforms but separate faces and personalities. Particularly the kids in the Social club:

Rufus - so eager to please, one of the older boys who likes to take control, I was told he had terrible concentration which is true, during the drumming lesson i'd
arranged for them, he kept looking at me, waiting to catch my eye for a
grin, but he'd totally miss an instruction and be stupidly out of
rhythm with the rest. Yesterday he gathered the boys together to call a
meeting of their own - without me!!! What a milestone, I've been
pushing and pushing for them to work, think and create independently and with a week to go they're getting it. I said "what's the meeting about?", "Oh, we'll tell you after we've had it". Fabulous.

Yessou - a very tall stoic girl, voted as Chair for the Girls' Club, she immediately comprehends a situation and acts, most you have to repeat an instruction twice or three times, for the slower ones four or five, for those living on another planet, six or seven times, after that 'figure it out or copy her' times. Yessou can always be relied upon which is such a help, i'm guessing she has a lot of responsibility at home. At the moment she's suffering from
large sores on her body which could be due to infection or poor diet
and malnutrition, or both. the rare moments she breaks into a smile are

Gege - a handsome, camp boy who seems to be the butt of jokes sometimes, but he gives as good as he gets and has a warm sunny personality. although he tries and tries, he's totally usless at all the pratical things we've done - no rhythm on the instruments, usless with a saw but he's popular and kind. I saw him with his baby brother out of school and he approached with an unusual confidence that not all of the students have.

Meme - one of my favourites, I find it impossible to understand her verbally, she talks in a wild explosion of consonants and gestures but I think she finds it difficult to understand me too, so initially we clashed a little. But then a shared twinkle came into our eyes as i realised that she is a natural comic - the class clown. she mimics other kids and teachers hilariously, gurning her lithe, strong
body into odd shapes for emphasis. she's bossy but in a jokey way so
the girls love her. During their music session, like me, she has to
sing an octave lower in the high bits and does it with gusto, less to get a laugh but just to make herself giggle. We recognise the comedy in each other and she lets me
take the mickey out of her, for example one of the girls said, "Meezz
Dee!, take a pitchore!!", I said I couldn't because I took a picture of
Meme and it broke the camera. Realising, that it's a joke, Meme laughs
loudly first, well before the others who take quite some time to see i'm not serious.

A boy whose name i can't remember now - he reminds me of my friend Dale
back home, tiny and light skinned, a real charmer. His body is lazy to hit puberty but when it does, watch out girls! Again a joker, his size has made him so. One of the girls told me not to bother talking to him, with a dismissive flick of her wrist she said, "Meezz Dee, he's SO short!"

Josephine - a petite little thing with a protruding under bite giving her face a comic look. Apparently, she's the cleverest
girl in the school and I know it's true, she told me how to spell 'hygiene'.
Her smile is beautiful and she's always interested; her mother had to
be persuaded to let her attend Social Club because she, like many, has work at home. It'll be a travesty if she can't afford to go to high school.

Phillip - a gangley teenager, odd looking, steady and shy smiling. He wrote a letter to miss Pen (the boys have taken a shine to her! she gets gifts and long looks, not jealous at all...)in the letter he wrote his story, long
and detailed, perfect, painstaking hand writing. He told of his
father's death and his move to the camp with his mother and sister, of
how his mother fell out with her own sister and then his mother became
ill. after a year she agreed to 'wed' a man so he would get her well
and when she was better she had to 'wed' other men to feed Phillip and
his sister - she became pregnant and was turned out by the man. How she
finally reconciled with her sister and had a baby boy, but this aunt
believes that Phillip is a witch and has taken her 'travel key' that
she hasn't been anywhere because of him. that this aunt is spreading it
around that he is a witch and that he is desperate for help. of course
he is looking for the holy grail everyone here is 'SPONSORSHIP' - the elixir
of contentment; regular money from someone, somewhere. Phillip finishes
Grade 6 this year and will then have to find money for school fees to
go to high school - every child in the school, every child on camp is
in the same position, just maybe on different rungs of the ladder.

These are just seven of the 400 plus. The children of the Carolyn Miller School make me smile everyday, they are giving me so much, to say it's rewarding is an understatement. As I've said before, the adults are incredibly complex an difficult to fathom, the children are complex too, but they have an honesty and directness that is comforting. I'm at my happiest here when with them. yesterday a
new volunteer asked me what i felt about leaving - of course i want to
go home, I am not a natural at basic living and hot climates - but when
she asked me that question, for the first time I felt a huge sense of
guilt. These kids have come so far in such a short time, from not being
able to arrange themselves into a circle to planning private meetings
without me! They've responded so quickly to the team / confidence
building what could be achieved in a year? What could be achieved if I was here permanently. Don't worry folks, it ain't gonna happen, but that's where the guilt kicks in. I appeal to all the workshop leaders out there reading this, any playworkers, arts teacher's, actor's with corporate training experience to sign up and carry on this work - these kids need You!!

"Is the Army of God ready to march?!"

This was the cry of two late middle aged white women passing me at the
Holiday Feeling as I sat taking in my early morning Yorkshire tea. They
were addressing the group of young black men all clutching at their
Bible's waiting for them to arise for the day. These women refuse to
catch my eye for a polite 'morning' nod wishing to engage only with
those easily identifiable as maliable.
They are seriously one step away from a the twin set an pearls type,
all flowing skirts, cropped hair and earrings. One of them was also
overheard to say' "I'm no ORDINARY sponsor!" playing as written
earlier, into the deepest desires of the people here. I am of course referring
to The Missionary. Now, to say that the hoards of missionaries here are
truly preaching to the converted is a huge fucking understatement.
Every morning the Mosque belches out a cry followed not far behind by
the church services, now I'm talking 4am in the morning. But as one
women said, "if we didn't have Jesus, we'd all be crazy". My atheism is
kept private of course, the conversations following that revelation
would be like walking into a room full of mouse traps Tom & Jerry
style, funny but painful. So the few times I have been ask directly
(because I'm 'of colour' - they don't see me as black - they assume i'm
a Christian) I say I'm a Buddhist and very happy thank you and that
usually sends people off satisfyingly confused. But having said that, I
have huge respect for their right to religion and as requested ask the
of the Social Club to lead us in prayer after every session. The faith
in Jesus here occupies everything, all the shack store fronts are named
'In His Blessed Grace Goods' or 'Jehovah is God Fashion' or 'In the
Name of Jesus Sewing', in fact they are more inventive that my memory
here allows, most will preface and conclude a conversation with a
praising word for Him. There is a myriad of denominations from baptist
to catholic, Jehovah's witnesses to Islam, Rasta's to ... well you get
the point. Of course the organised religious groups here have also
brought money, the churches are used for social and community
activities and some of the missionaries not only preach but try to help the body as well as the spirit with practical assistance. But it's the missionary's
bashing their doctrines with blind insensitivity that i can't abide. A
steady stream of them arrive from the USA, all 'living in His glory'
and 'driving out the evil'. One of my biggest regrets in life will be
missing the opportunity to see Tom the Missionary do his 'thing'. He
was here for a couple of weeks, originally from California he's now
living in Israel as part of a mission who's 'thing' is to learn the
bible by heart. He was preaching at 'The BIG house' (BIG = believe in
god - i kid you not. the BIG house meaning something very different to
a Celt) I was desperate to go witness one of his TWO four hour sessions
of verbatim per day, but I messed up and then he was gone. tom looked
like a teenage Herman Munster and turned out to be easy to talk to as I
think he senses who he can preach at and when to just chill - a are
quality in a missionary. But most are like brainwashed automatons, armed with optimism, their version of the bible and the unwavering belief that they are RIGHT inviting swathes of young black, mostly men, back to their rooms at the end of the day for extra curricular
worship. It's like they're getting off on coming to the 'underdeveloped
world' to teach the natives how to be saved. Piss off. It'sracism and ingnorance at it's worst because it does not believe itself to be so. A Canadian, looking like an ugly Brian Adams said to us, "i'm a missionary, not a humanitarian." well, that says it all.

Cape Coast Castle

Pen, Holly and I had a well deserved weekend away. We took a trip to Cape Coast, site of a prominent slave castle fort about a two hour drive from Budu. There are 'forts' all along the West African coast line, but the rocky shores of 'The Gold Coast' (as it was known), lent itself naturally to construction, over 50 and also 3 major castles were built/re built by the Dutch, Portuguese, British, Swedes, Danes through the 16th & 17th centuries. Originally trading posts for other commodities, eventually due to economics, the trade in Slaves became more lucrative and the 'Slave triangle' dominated until the abolitionist movement succeeded in the early 19th C. At cape Coast Castle we were guided through what can only be described as small dungeons where, at any one time, hundreds of men, women and children were held in spaces as small as 15ft square. I thought I was kind of prepared for the experience. I knew already about the scratches on the walls and the recent excavation that discovered the floors were actually 3 feet of human excrement. I knew that they had little or no light or air, i knew that the 'condemned cell' was where those that were too unhealthy to travel were taken to be murdered. I didn't know that most of the population of West Africa and beyond was enslaved, that figures of 12 million+ are sketchy as the children weren't counted. I didn't know that traditional African religious shrines were decimated to build these forts (I saw a rebuilt, working Tabin(?) shrine in the place of what was the tunnel to the ships). Moreover, what i hadn't considered was that my name of 'Johnson' may not just be a given slave owner's name but could've been the name inherited by my Great ... Grandfather by his white father, a British soldier - I may be a descendant of not just slaves, but slave guards or slave owners. A visit to Auschwitz would evoke those images we've seen taken by their liberators of skeletal bodies piled high - there you would see the boxes of spectacles, the mounds of shoes. Here at Cape Coast Castle your imagination is left to fill in those pictures. I, for my own health remained detached, not allowing those images to stay in my mind. My emotions remained in check only shaking twice:
It's strange being in the company of academics when at home I am always with creatives, we are a different breed. creatives process situations emotionally then rationality follows, the girls are the opposite - Holly is an immigration lawyer and Pen a student gaining her master's degree in international affairs; very bright young women, both of whom have a fascination with Africa. So, my rational travelling companions cyclically and without pause discuss the details of the genocide of slavery, the politics of the time, the resulting global effects, competing with each other over their knowledge of figures of death, who was or wasn't to blame, time lines and geography - I had to say, "Please! Can we not talk about it for a while. Being here is enough, my stomach hurts". i was having a physically emotional reaction to the place, for me it was reality not theory, i need to reflect and not debate.
The other evocation of emotion I experienced was walking through 'The Door of No Return' It's name says it all. (as a gesture they have put a plaque on the other side reading 'Door of Return' for the descendants of those taken to symbolically come home). As the guide opened the large grey wooden doors that would have led directly onto waiting boats to load the slaves onto ships, we were released from the cold, damp, dark and oppressive atmosphere of the castle and throw, not into further fear, but into a brilliant sunshine of bluest sky, between us and the sea the beach was invisible with a thronging mass of Africans; preparing their fishing boats, sewing and folding nets, baskets thrown and carried high, children splashing naked in the Saturday sea busy with freedom and happiness. All were going about their business loudly, seemingly without care. Behind the door was silence and the past with it's shadows, here was noise, laughter, chatter and the future. Here, I've used the word 'overwhelming' often, and yet always appropriately.
Of course slavery has had a part in human history since man first felt the pangs of ego and ownership - but the Slave Triangle of goods/guns for people, people for goods, goods for wealth was different; these slaves were regarded as non-human, every genocide needs a lack of empathy and an animalisation of it's victims. The guide at Cape Coast Castle was keen not to lay blame singularly, history is always complex than memory allows, but the colonisation of Africacan be found at the roots of conflicts and civil wars today - Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Togo, South Africa ... etc., etc. Where one man believes his skin tone, his faith, his intelligence, is higher, better, more right than another's - that this gives him the right to more land, more goods, more wealth than another, is all a reflection of ego, a need for comparative or disparitive identity. Bloody men! x

Saturday, 27 January 2007

For the ladies

My first night's sojourn at the Holiday Feeling 'Hotel', I had a
flushing western water closet. Since then, I've been in a room with
only a urinal. (To poo I run down the hall, andbelieve me ladies, it's ALWAYS a run) To pee in a urinal a lady must first remove all lower garments, attempting
to leave on knickers can result in a soggy gusset. The recommended
docking is a rear attack, trying to imitate a male will result in a
sharp reminder that our equipment reallyain't made that way enough. So, once de-clothed and ready for rear docking, remember ladies, angle is everything. (Familiarity with your urinal and an assumption of general cleanliness of the porcelain will create peace of mind re hygiene.) I suggest that each lady will have her own preference but I find a sharp angle of roughly 57.9 degrees will provide the optimum success
in releasing water into the urinal bowl. Should spillages take place
have an insufficiently dribbling shower head to hand to wash down
object of discussion, and self. Good luck ladies, I wish you well!

Recess in a small square space

Din of playground echoes - 'round the courtyard bellows,
Shaking off the tin roof - bouncing bodies sun proof.
Orange, black and brown shapes - flapping screaming legs race,
Atoms clashing, fighting - "Chase him! Catch him! Bite him!".
Hands and feet are clapping - stomping rhythm beating,
Groups are jigging patterns - laughing, winning, losing.
Rough and tumble, boisterous - concrete corners vicious,
Food is shared and stolen - punches fly, then all done.
Bags and clothes are dusty - blood from knees runs rusty,
Faces wet with weeping - sympathy is fleeting.
Bow-legged child looks lonely - finding chat then set free,
Shuffles 'round in circles - dignity hangs so loose.
Older kids in classrooms - shut out the din with heads bowed,
Some are working so hard - disengaged, the bold bored.
No bell clangs the time, but - pairs of legs skip, walk, strut,
Hoards squeeze into doorways - peace again this square space.

Animals (One for the neighbours)

Dive to the bottom of the pecking order on camp and you'll find the
animals, all free range and pretty rangy. Cockerels crow every morning
a warm up act to the pigeons dancing the rumba on the tin roof of my
room. the hens are usually followed by a splattering of chicks who
scratch around chirping and clucking. There is one brood who hang
around The Brotherhood whose littlest chick has a broken leg. I call
her 'broken leg chick', i try and find some crumbs somewhere to feed her
as have always been a sucker for an under-chick but her future does not look rosy.
There are ducks too, dusty, scraggy things, some of the birds have
remnants of tethers 'round their legs, but i get the feeling they do go
home to roost. The
goats do too, quiet trotters who pass in groups as if on their way to
the library or a political meeting, they rarely bleat and find innocuous places to rest, I saw a mother and 3 kids fast asleep in the front bucket of a huge digger. I've eaten 'meat' meat once since
arriving, we were told it was cow but i have a suspicion that my
bleating friends are now adding to the digestive sagas I have every
day, never again. There are loads of dogs here, awww! anyone who knows me, knows how much I love the hound. They all look the same; long nosed mutts, tan, white and some
brown - snoopy type ears hang over their eyes and, as all the animals
here, small. rarely do you see a dog on a lead, or even one following
an owner, they just do their own thing and then go home, if they have
one to go to. i did see a bigger dog, black and tan, a healthy looking
fella in his prime, he did have an air of top dog about him and the way
he was muttering "Who'd da Daddy?" suggested to me he was. The cats are
small too, big wide eyes and slender bodies, always pregnant, and like
all the animals on camp they have as different a culture as their human neighbors. If you make kissy cooing sounds to a dog or cat back home, 9/10 you'll get a positive response, they raise a tail, soften and come over for some lovin', but here any noises of affection are greeting with non-plussed
indifference. I guess they're just not use to strangers, or anyone
really petting them, well, they're not pets but commodities to be bred
and eaten, yes folks, it seems when food is scarce a hot dog is exactly
what is says on the tin. Now, I am one of the biggest dog lovers in the
but I've seen little cruelty towards animals (but it probably happens),
how they're killed and some eaten of course I haven't seen, but when
you live in an
environment of hardship the dogs join the queue. if i don't remain
pragmatic and let my over sensitive empathy kick in, well i'd be useless
here. Anyway, back to the animals; I've only seen one rat and that was
dead as a coaster, seen more rodents on the platform of Morden
tube, guess the cats and dogs take care of them. Cockroaches make a
regular appearance, but most are small and work alone, one scuttled
into my dirty pants pile, sothat'll save a call to Rentokil. there are an abundance of birds, from magpie looking things to
vultures, but as I don't know their names, difficult to report, however
i did see a small flock of Little Egrets on a roundabout in Accra,
having spotted a rare trio of them in the park next to my home I was
well chuffed, I think they do make the trip there and back - wonder if
we'd met before then? The lizards are cool, they scuttle about all over
the shop, little house ones inside, (although one in my room would be a
no, I think), the males have bright orange heads and orange markings and
like the female are a dusty green/grey in colour, they stop to look at
you to do a few push ups then move on. just today i watched two succour
up a wall and wait outside an ant hole to snap up any unsuspecting
passers by. they chomped on dozens of ants before word got down the
hole that 'God' was taking sacrifices again and that it was probably
best to stay in and watch telly for a while. Finally, we (me, and
volunteer pals Holly and Pen) have inherited from Simon and Hannah, a
man by the name of Emmanuel, he's about 18 but looks 14, has a simple
intelligence, and a comic high voice and gait - he has
the heart of a poet and for this culture, a rare love of animals. He
has become our 'friend' and likes to visit us often, he's kind of like
a nice stalker, bless him, and he can be a great source of help for
camp info and protocol. Emmanuel had a dog but, "it was killed, I liked
that dog, every time I call him, his tail wag, wag, wag!", he has a cat
called Bruno which is never around to see and most impressively he has
maybe a dozen rabbits. He has made three hutches at the back of his
home, and has let nature take it's course from a couple he was left by
a man who went back to Liberia. they are white albinos and cute as
hell. He goes into the bush to find green leaves for them. they look
healthy enough and he does let them run around outside in an enclosed
area now and then. He has locks on the hutches and carries the keys
with him at all times but still, it's amazing that no one has carried
the hutches off to a waiting pot of boiling water and onions.


Thanks so much for your comments, I get them safely, loud and clear. They make
me homesick but in a good way, cheers my friends. I'm so behind with news as the Internet
on camp is a nightmare. I spent two hours on a post a few days ago, five minutes each
line waiting for letters to appear, every error in typing a long
painful pause praying for the cursor to blink again. Then my time ran
out and it was lost to the ether. Bollocks. So, anyway as I was saying
so behind with myself. Hannah and Simon are long gone, their leaving
ceremony held by the school was touching and very African, that is;
formal, lots of speeches, prayers, gifts. it was wonderful. I cried
more than them. when asked if they should go back to England, the kidschorused loudly "NNOOOOOOOOOO!!!" - breaks your heart. They've been here for five months and really
been a part of the school proper, they were it's first volunteers. Me,
I'm just doing a quick hit and run in comparison.
I'm getting into a routine of sorts now, the games club is every day at 1pm, numbers range from
60+ to around a dozen. with the younger ones it can take a while to get
them into a circle even, but they'll get the hang of it. I've used some exercises
I brought over from other drama workshop leaders, (thanks all, the 'book of games' will be left for future volunteers) but even tho' I knew
everything had to be simple simple, I'm still surprised about how basic I
have to be with what i give them, a simple 'pass the clap' exercise has
turned into a major part of the warm up as they find playing a small
part to make a 'whole' work difficult - when they get it though, wow! we had two claps going yesterday, BIG celebrations! I find teaching them in mime is
best, I use a whistle instead of speech and they really tune into it, I
use hands gestures and a lot of physicality so they have to be
attentive and concentrated. Talking with a raised voice over them is pointless and tiring. Copying games and mirroring are also winners, particularly with the younger ones, the older ones like team games, so lost of trust building
stuff and group challenges. The Social Club is also in full swing. All
voting is done so the creative stuff can start. Took the boys to an
open space to learn drumming and Liberian Dance from a 'guy who knows a
guy' who, of course, i just met somewhere. really fabulous to see the boys
learning music, they learnt a song in the time it takes me to choose a
CD and put it on at home, they started to dance and began to drum rhythms, cute. Girl's turn on monday, hopefully. Yesterday I led a 'Leadership Workshop' - a request from Mr Ballah, it was the perfect way to demonstrate how the Friday afternoon 'Open Sessions' I'd devised can operate (open sessions are what it suggests, anyone can book one for a one off idea for a one off for further development eg a quiz, a debate, a football match any thing, for the whole school or specific kids). I made a clear plan for the Leadership workshop; as usual the kids were fab, but again although I asked for support from the teaching staff
only two appeared and only for part of the time; if I can't get proper
help for the Club from adults the chances of it continuing successfully
are slim, Mr Ballah is so supportive, but I'm just not sure what's going to happen when I go. Did some Forum Theatre with them, (stuff I've done in corporate training gigs) a
simple bullying scenario, at first they wanted to solve the problem by laying
a trap for the bully, hilarious, took some explaining that that
probably wasn't the most honest course. We brainstormed good
leadership, talked about fears and possible failures and what qualities
the good leaders we knew have - went well i think despite continual
disturbances around us. Every day I use skills that I've just picked up
along the way, my varied working life means i have a plethora of useless and useful skills and experiences, being a Jack of All Trades is perfect dynamic for working with refugees.

Monday, 22 January 2007

It's not so simple here

The infrastructure here at Budu is far more complex than I ever
imagined. I tried not to have any assumptions or preconceptions but i
did think my time here, that life here would be more difficult but 'simple':

that it would be a more rural setting; Buduburam Refugee Camp is a town, not in our sense of the word but still so, 30,000+ people scratching
out an existence. 'businesses' whether it's plaitting hair or selling
bags of water, hawking off volunteers or chatting to rich white men
online - it's all to make money to survive. The 'streets' are bustling
and busy, at night the '18' the mainthoroughfare is chocker, it's more like Newcastle's Big Market but without the vomit, loud and intimidating.

then there's the political complexities of the camp. The two American
vols with me are very clued up on African history and politics (this
continent has been an lifelong obsession for them) and they've made
great efforts to suss out the politics on camp. There are many NGO's (non governmental Organisations) who bring vols to their projects for their expertise in an area - eg training, teaching etc., but unfortunately more unscrupulous NGO's are happy to take vols donations and use them less honestly. Stories of Jeeps appearing and uncompleted projects abound. I and the children of the CAMES are so lucky in that Karrus Hayes and the staff at the school have spotless reputations. Every resource is ploughed into the school.
it'a an UNHCR camp so th UN subsidize basics, security, some food, some protection for the most vulnerable. I don't understand the hierarchy of the UNHCR
but funding is being squeezed here and will drastically be cut in July
2007. this is to encourage repatriation back to Liberia where 95% are
from. Not all want to go, so how the settlement will function in 10/20
years from now is a frightening mystery. There have been elected
councils on site but it's unclear what responsibilities they have and
any organised action from the people here seemserratic and difficult to
fathom. the longer I spend here though, more comforting examples of
individuals working very hard to organise and share resources come to
the fore: These people are survivors, to comprehend their daily
struggles and understand a common mind set, too gather a sense of what
it means to live as a refugee here in my short time here will be impossible.
It's better I think for me to concentrate my efforts on what I was brought here to do. Helping the children is tangible and rewarding; remember the circumstances - forget the bigger picture, it does your head in.

the final level of complexity here is the most difficult for me; my first ten days have been emotionally draining and in so many ways. the kids in school continue
to shock me with their tenacity, will to learn and curiosity. they are
like any kids I've worked with anywhere but their circumstances make
them all the more special. However, what is really emotionally draining is the adult
interactions you have daily, consistently. (as i write this I've been
accosted twice!) at least 10 - 15 people a day, strangers want to be
your friend. They're looking for sponsorship for schooling/ a wife / a
foster home for their child etc, etc. You have to be polite of course
and remember the reasons why they're like this, but it's exhausting
because it's so relentless. We went to a craft market in Accra on
Sunday and the attention to buy stuff was so heavy andaggressive that
(but for instruments for the kids at school) I bought nothing - it was
a miserable experience. After a horrendously dust and hot hour and a
half journey home, I got back to camp to find a child and a former
child soldier, Georgy, waiting for me, both demanding attention and
help. I had to turn the ex child soldier away and of course give focus
to the Rufus (a boy Han and Si became close to) but I felt like shit
for Georgy because it was his childhood that brought me here in the
first place. It becomes impossible to tell who is having a genuine conversation with you and who is , well, hustling. You are asked for your email, phone number, blah and some
seem 'straight' but then you may be bombarded by calls and visits the
next day/hour. The result is that you become hard and cinical towards people, the kids become the majority you can truly trust! Then I think of all i have at home, loved ones, security, work, water, electricity, the ridiculous abundance of food and I feel intolerant.
Last night, all of this emotional pressure got to me and I had a huge
sobbing breakdown - if a car had arrived to take me home, I'd have got
in it. If we have a seriously bad day at home, you can; call a friend -
here the network is often down; you can escape into the tv - yeah right; you can read a book - no light to read by if lekky
down; a bath...? Make a cup of tea...? Vodka and Slimline...? Of course
the moment passed, but it's tough here - really tough. At least I can
ge out; unlike a refugee I can go home.

Beaten Boy

I'm in the courtyard talking to Karrus Hayes. Simon and Hannah and
another teacher are now next to us. the teacher is holding the arm of a
boy - he is about seven. the boy is dusty and dirty, his flies are
broken and he is crying. "look at this boy" someone says, "he's been
beaten very bad". His arm is held aloft, he has scar tissue all up his
forearms where he has raised them to protect himself. there are fresh
wounds. I notice his swollen hands at immediately, we are told that
stones have been rapped on his hands. His domed brown head is swollen
too. "who did this to you, eh?, your Mudda? your Fadda?, who you have at home?" Yes, with amazed reaction he has a Mother AND Father at home. "Who did dis to you?.", "My Mudda", he whispers. Hannah and I can take no more and move away, Simon is a
tower of strength, talking kindly and firmly to the boy, how this is
not right, does he have a brother to protect him. Next thing Sam, a
teacher and Simon are out the gate off to see this boy ... Peter's
mother. I look again at him, more composed mow and cup my hand in his
cheek unable to speak. I see the sores on his legs and bare feet -
flies buzz around them. Hannah goes to get some major antiseptic and
something to clean them with. I am working on a computer , i tell him to
sit with me and watch, he does. I give him my black pencil from the innocuously luxurious Mal
Maison hotel in Manchester and tell him to draw me a picture. we sit
together working. "Oh, you right with your left hand", I say, "that is
a sign that you are very creative, you will be a good painter, poet or
actor", he smiles, and indeed his drawing of a comb is excellent. Simon
returns, he says, when confronted the mother knew she had done wrong,
he could tell by the beating vain at her neck showing adrenalin. They
gave her stern words and she had said, "He's a bad boy, never does as
he's told, he needs to be beaten". Now, they have corporal punishment
here at the school - all schools do - it's a culture thing. they know
volunteers disapprove and do it out of our sight. I believe it is our
place to strongly express this disapproval but no more - who are we but
visitor's, guests in this country and camp - you must be conscious of
cultural differences no matter how shocking and we, of course ensure
that no child is hit in our classes. Tough but this is a tough place. A
says, "the mudda is beating him in anger, she says he is a bad boy,",Hannah is emphatic, saying my thought,"no child is bad, they may learn how to do bad things but he is not
born bad". Teacher, "he should be beaten with love, not in anger." None
of us know what to say to that one. Again Simon is great with Peter,
asking him question's, playful, trying to get this boy distracted from
all of this. next I hear his parents have been called to the school,
within minutes they arrive. I don't see them as they are talking to
Principal Ballah , the door is open but I can only see Peter standing
The parents are, I hope, getting the bollocking of a lifetime, the
length of time they're in there i guess this is the case. I
have heard of cases of children being removed from 'house'holds put with foster mothers and prosecutions
being made. I am heartened that is seems this horror is being
efficiently dealt with by the school. I look at Peter in the gloomy oppressive
office from the bright light and freedom of the courtyard, he is stood
swivelling on one foot; he could be any boy. For comfort he is chewing
on my pencil from Manchester, still gripped in swollen hands.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

the first democratic meeting of the CAMES BSC

I've been asked here at the Carolyn A Miller Elementary School (CAMES) to create after school activities; I am the first person in the post of 'play co-coordinator/orphan assistant so i've
spent my first week here trying to plan a routine of work that is
sustainable and consistent. I have had to bare in mind so many factors;
staff support, future vol ability and experience, the educational
nature of the activities to name a fraction. I've created a time table
to include 'Games' for all straight after school, splitting up Grades
to days, and TheCAMES Social Club, for selected students to explore and learn other extra curricular act ivies throughout the arts. It will be the SC's
duty to share their knowledge gained with the rest of the school, via
plays, recitals, concerts, quizzes, competitions and even directteaching themselves to their fellow students. In one day, with Mr Ballah's blessing, I managed to explain to Grades 4, 5 & 6 and thier teachers the Aims and objects of the clubs and what the students will gain from membership. (Boys and Girls split so sensitive issues can be discussed freely, eg everything from std's to sexual/domestic violence, hygiene to politics, HIV/AIDS to rhythm method - yes, 'primary'learning
age but 13+'s only). the teacher's (each grade has a 'Sponsor' - class
teacher) chose 8 boy and 8 girls who show good attendance, good
behaviour or good work. I especially asked them to pick kids who are
clever but maybe have no confidence and don't feel able to comment in
class. there is also a boy with dwarfism (remember Chancy?)who is the
only one I pushed for - he is so attentive and I think often ridiculed,
he is exactly the kind of kid who couldflourish with responsibility.
amazingly, i say that the first Boys' Club meeting will be that
afternoon and 18 of the 24 boys turned up, alltie rd , thirsty and
hungry. ( I have to find a way to get them water at least before
meetings - but every costs) We sit in a circle, probably their first
time as they wanted a square first! and play a daft game from which i
could gather who's confident and who's shy. about 60/40. Oninstigation by Mr Ballah
, the meetings with follow a very African yet democratic form. I give
an Agenda, explain a Chair, co chair, (secretary, treasurer and
chaplain (!) roles to be done next meet). I suddenly realise that a
show of hands will be intimidating, so it goes like this: " the Chair
is a boy who can show greatleadership , he must be fair, honest, caring
and strong. he is the boy we will look to for guidance and he will be a
help to the volunteer, staff and students - if you feel you would like
this responsibility, stand' four did. "we will learn their initials and
have a private ballot, you will write the boy of your choice on a scrap
of paper and pass them to me". They did, a boy keep tally andToklah Fah was elected the first Chair of the BSC. "now for the co-Chair, he is the chair's right hand man the will help the chair and take over where necessary - he's not your slave!" they
vote.Toklah comes quietly to me, "miss Dee, there are 18 boys here and you have more that 18 pieces of paper, some are voting more than once". this boy, after one minute
of being Chair had already seen unfairness and made a stand. "thank
you, well done, the right man has been chosen" I say. I give the boys a
quick stern lecture on corruption - how so many countries including
Liberia suffer a corrupt voting system putting the wrong people in
charge. "Here at the Social Club," I say, "all will be fair and open,
you can be the future leaders of Liberia and that path begins here. In
a democracy there is one man - one vote." there are murmurs of
agreement and some ashamed looks. we vote again - 18 votes and aboy legally becomes the first co-chair of the BSC.
when I first decided to come here to work with abandoned and vulnerable
children, I thought it would mean wiping a few brown babies arses,
cuddling, washing, and generally being another pair of arms - here i
am, teaching a group of refugee boys the democratic process. that
night, yet again, I am overwhelmed.

little things ...

Tuesday, second day of school: New Ikando volunteer, Holly ( a rare thing a liberal, democratic American with a sense of humour), and i walked to The Brotherhood for breaky - a shack with two Seirra Leoneans who'll cook a reliable meal of oats, spagetti in sauce or 'egg in bread. After oats we went our seperate ways, her to the Liberian Womens' Skills Centre. me to school. I've just about got the route now, just about. Halfway there a tiny girl came to my left, "heelllo!", "Hello" i say and shake hands, this can happen often as the kids like to say hi the 'obrani' but she doesn't go away and i feel little fingers slip into my left hand. i look down and see her orange and black uniform - she's one of ours and must have seen me yesterday. We walk together in silence - fingers in hand - all the way. I'm not sure who's taking care of who. I only just manage not to cry at this tiny gesture.

catch up - tues 16th jan

I was in the school library (3 bare looking shelving units with a lot of innaproprrate book donations, eg 'Tabitha Goes to the Mall', well not quitethat but you get my drift, nonsensical western cultural references). The teacher's come here to prepare their lessons; i gather there are about 9 core staff, all are volunteers, they get some 'compensation', as they call it, sometimes but it is the equivelent of a few pence per month. I so admire these men and women, they have such pride tryibng to teach a Ghanaian cirriculum with little or no resources (some with little training) to children tierd and hungry, in impossible heat, in huge class sizes in tiny rooms, but they turn up every day because the alturnative is what? hawking cheap goods? going on the hussle? hanging around all day with no focus or purpose? These people have made a selfless promise to these children and the kids battle all odds to turn up every day, they come in a variety of conditions, som some without breakfast, some without shoes or books to write in but most still have pressed and clean uniforms, (the Liberians here are so proud of their apperances, they put the vols to same, despite the atrocious conditions of living and poverty the women have 'beauty salons' and most are spotless.) Han said she has witnessed a boy - Chancy - sent out of class for bad behaviour who then spent the whole class lent against the room 'window'outside trying to see the board and follow the class. if children are late they are sent away (which is harsh i think, maybe one or two periods, ok) but some will just sit outside the small metal gate for hours, so depressed, (remember these are nusery and primary kids). Teaching ability varies; I witnessed an inspirational command of a class in fraction addition, but there are other very dry classes; with no teaching aids, a blackboard created from ordinary black paint on the wall so it's hard to read from and write on, no practical equipment for science classes, some kids just listening with nothing to take notes on, they learn alot by rote without a real comprehension or understanding. they when asked if they understand they will chorus "yes" just to please, with only the most confident asking questions - it's a real battle. of course staff may teach classes ina subject they have no knowledge of but they will revfer to a basic kids work book from the 'library' and regurgitate the text word for word. they are all doing their very best, but coming from a free education system with all that we take for granted, it's, it's ... well you know.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

A Step Forward

after spending the day yeaterday, observing the kids in class, noticing teaching practices and how they learn, concentration etc., i began to take some classes for a chat about where I'm from and if they had questions, to test the water of their abilities, just like the kids i once taught in L.A. they have no idea where the UK is, "IN USA!" (Liberia being a former American colony and where some Liberians are hoping to be repatriated to, they know the "USA!" - how ironic) Also after watching a class about water purification, i tested them by doing a simple mime of bringing in water and preparing it correctly asking them to show the English woman how it is done correctly. aslo i asked for actors to come and be germs, water and fire to be scary, wavy, like flames respectively. They played their part beautifully heating up and boiling, germs dying beautifully! so I think they'll be pretty okay with other tasks. also I tried a simple group chain game with littler ones, they need a lot of clear guidance and follow best by copying. so armed with ideas for After School Activities i met with Principal Ballah again this morning. A great meeting in which he outlined, amoung other things, his wish for the students activities to be predominantly about health issues. I read him the proposals I'd drawn up for a 'Social Club'in which boys and girls from higher grades will have termly project to work on around certain health themes. they will use Music, drama, Visual Art, Poetry to develop work to teach the rest of the school and community about those issues. Also I proposed a 'Gasmes Club' for all students to improve communication skills, independant thinking, group work etc., agian leaning towards the future volunteers skills. I feel such a reponsibility for good continuity between vols that come in, that is paramount for these kids who have had and live in such uncertainty. So, there will be three or for strands to this voluteer post i think, all of which will have some flexability but so vols can be creative but i worry about the level of experience and ability of some vols who may be young or have little teaching experience - so it's creating a system that will work for all. Mr Ballah and i are so on the same wavelength, i feel i have such a strong focus on what to do here - how exciting and what a huge relief too! tomorrow i need to start implementing our ideas - i'm here for such a short time i'd like to get a move on asap - well Liberian stylee.

Monday, 15 January 2007

First day at school

At last I'm going to school! Wiht the help of Si, i drag a uslessly wheeled huge, heavy bag the rocky, sandy, crevice and sewer filled paths to the Carolyn Miller School. (I promise to post links to more info for those who don't already know about it's history) Already the kids are in class, I see them through the open doors that lead off from the courtyard; dressed in orange and black uniforms, they lounge and concentrate at thier squashed tiny desks, three bums to a bench. I present my gifts of school supplies to Mr Ballah the principal. He is moved and grateful, and so am I - just to be here. I say that friends and family have helped to donate, instead of giving and receiving xmas gifts and some friends gave a little more, I choke to think of my sister Ashliegh pushing 40 quid into my hands with no prompting from me, she would be in tears to see the joy of a Principal with little or no resources welling up at the sight of a plastic work folder. I hav to continue my day tomorrow - time's up!

I'm here to work, but hey...

The weekend was a guilty holiday away treating Hannah and Si to a night over at Kokrobite Beach. We lie on the beach - a hazy harmattan view (dust and sand from the Sahara season)of palm trees, fishing boats and black bodies playing, push upsand Rasta sidlings. strange to see white people too and a sense that the sex trade thing strongly. Si takes a dip then we wander down to a busier part. Si and Han discuss whether it's safe or not for me to carry my small backpack, they were mugged here - a bag snatch. Si wins and I stuff what I can into pockets. Big Milly's is a hotel and bar, busy unlike ours, stalls of beads and crusty clothes, drums and fruit. for hotel as ours, read shackes and shared toilets. Si has a drum lesson and Han and I drink and chat. She is a truly wonderful young woman, interested and interesting, self proclaimed daughter of hippies, she has an intelligence and social responsibility made obviious by the way she talks caringly and empathetically about refugees, the Liberians here and those back in her home Norwich. She has a wisdom now that will develop her into a special individual as she ages, i'm sure. We wander for a genuine pizza by a genuine Italian (how bizzare) then back to Millies for a band; middle of the road medleys and obligatory Bob Marley. We're tierd do we head back the 5 mins walk to our place 'Andy's' We laugh and chat and my status as a brown belt in Karate comes up, H says she did Karate once for a while, then Si notices a shadow behaind us. They are so attuned, in fact H walked backwards for a while. I think he's just walking our way but Si calls to him, "go away, go away!" I think his overracting. we walk faster in a very English way which is comical in sandles and sand. Si grabs a stick - the guy is closer - "GO AWAY!" - he doesn't say anything like "It's ok! Just walking.." so H and I really click in - Si grabs a long stick but it's attached to a boat and he has to pull at it - the guy grabs at me - I'm wearing a shawl that he's mistaken for a bag - I shout but he keeps grabbing - next thing I feel his nose on my fist and he's let go and gone. I don't beleive it, I've punched hin square on the nose! all those years of drilling in karate, never had it tested out and by a pleasing miracle an instinct took over and my body reacted before my brain - and on target!! So pleased with myself. poor Han worried for me but me fine. Of course we debrief the story over a vodka and over and over again with a german drop out at 'Andy's'. I went to my room and there in the loo was another spider, I'm freaked by it. Hmn.

Friday, 12 January 2007

I'm not in Kansas anymore...

I'm here, in this sprwling shanty matropolis - it's taken me 37 minutes to log on and get to this page, so please excuse the fast typing and bad spelling...

where to start, in fact i hav eno idea what day it is or if i've been here two or three days. the flight into Accra was fine and i was picked up at the airport safely by Ikando, a good sign that the organisation is as sound as I hoped and thought it would be. after a sleepless night fighting with a mossy net I was met by Nathanial, then Laura the boss lady from Ikando. Nathaniel took me 'round Accra to find a sim card and change money - he talked for a with in his native language to a guy from the house and leaned to me saying, "don't worry, we are not planning to sell you!", a sense of humour, great - I think. However I've never felt more alien in my life than arriving on the streets of Accra, it's like every film or documentary time a hundred. SO busy, butstling with peolpe smartly dressed, so clean against the dust and smells of burning plastic that is strangley pleasent. Shops coloured with advertising posters, tyres, friut, cloth, cosmetics, sim card trolleys and tourists trash; "eh heh? Ladydeee!". the drive to Buduburam settlement is long and dangerous in the stalling old Toyota - we are stopped by some serious looking cops who ask us to empty the boot twice to look at the spare tyre ... you think a Nigeria parking attendent is bad... I'm staying at the Holiday Feeling 'Hotel' on the outskirts of the camp. I had a loo and air con so bloody marvelous, much needed when I had my first dose of the trots in the middle of the night, no to worry tho' I shared the experience with a dying cockroach - I know how he felt. I was met that night by the wonderful Simon and Hannah who are as godsent as Ralph predicted they would be, and happilyt in an atheistic way, totally on my wavelength. They've been here for 5 months and despite some awful begginings have made a place for themselves here and will be missed when they go next week. which brings me to the school the timer is saying 9 mins to cut off, how can i do it..!) Budu to describe needs a poets sensibilities, a sprawling shasnty town held together by good will and rocky dusty pathways. it too bustles, like Accra there are businesses everwhere as the Liberians and Sierra Leoneans try to carve a living. of cours here it's on a smaller scale, shacks are workshops and lean to's are cafe's, but again the people are smart, dolled up in mostly donated clothes from the west, women's hair pristene as are the men's shoes. The school stands out bright and orange - a square compound surrounded by classrooms, 9 maybe, american style, small benches for three small bums at a time. I'm out of time now but just to say I have already met people with the most awesome stories of how they are here and how they want to leave. they all hate being refugees and all have great hopes. the school is still on xmas break but Monday sees my first day of term along with them. PS had my first spider, had to ask a lady to get rid of it for me - how stupid I felt - so much for 210 quids worth of hypno therapy

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

It's the night before the day

It's the night before the day. I've unpacked the rucksack, re packed it, but it still weighs more than a Datsun Cherry. I feel very crusty lobbing it on, all I need is a bandana and a hound on a piece of string. Talking of which I'm so going to miss my dog, it'll be the longest time away from her. I don't expect non-dog owners to understand because I bloody don't - yes it's ridiculous to be so attached to a creature who farts, eats, grows old and starts to smell, but strangely it's her I'm thinking of now that all is packed and quiet and the list of 'to-do's' is all scrubbed out.
I planned to spend the day knitting socks for each of the 600 odd children but those cruel, cruel men of the Inland Revenue sent a final reminder yesterday which meant most of my final hours where spent sobbing over a calculator and filling a tax return online. Happily though, I already feel welcomed by the people over there in Ghana; spoke to Laura from Ikando yesterday (she mentioned something about a roof but I couldn't get much of what she said - hope she wasn't shouting "bring a roof! we have no roof! bring a roof!”) and had an email today from a couple of volunteers already in camp, Hannah and Simon; I also have had some fabulous detailed emails from an Australian bloke who was at Buduburam recently filling me in with lots of tips like, ‘close your mouth in the shower' and 'buy your water in bulk'. Maybe I should be thinking of what work I'll be doing with the school, you know - planning - but I'm a self inflicted middle class woman of 36 who thinks Clinique is a necessity and has different mosturiser for the changing moods in weather; that rucksack is full of pills in case those pills don't work and creams for every fungus, bite and scrape ever classified. Perhaps I should be leaving this altruistic stuff to the young ones, those gappers who are lithe, flexible and constantly bouncy - I haven't bounced in a long time and I ain’t just talking about my bust folks.
The past couple of weeks I've been a bit numb about going, a bit dreamy with the odd spark of excitement and the odd beat of dread. Tonight I'm kind of the same way, I hope I wake up to reality when I get there. I seem to spend a lot of my life escaping the reality of my own life to live in other people’s, I'm in the perfect place when being another person in my work; escape and play - the best of rewards of acting and writing. But going to Ghana tomorrow to a place where 'escape' has brought Liberians and Sierra Leoneans to a settlement … to put my life on hold to experience and learn about the complexities and horrors of people displaced ... will it seem real or disjointed? I’m cacking it. I think the plan is to stick to practicalities and take them one step at a time, the reality of the reliability of a Morden cab driver picking me up on time for the airport is enough for the first step, surely things can’t get harder than that?