Thursday, 8 February 2007

and finally...

Until this trip, I’d had a natural ability to detach myself from difficulty, from my own and others and I know why – it hurts too much. I’ve walked a mile in another man’s shoes and those shoes stink and they’re bloody sore - I’d rather have my comfy slippers on thanks. My pockets are not deep enough and my will not strong enough. Perhaps Mother Theresa wasn’t a great woman but simply a different kind of one? I think the Carolyn A, Miller School will always be in my life, but if I stayed there too long I’d be sucked dry as a chicken bone. I’m not a natural at aid work, my skin is way too thin, but I feel that didn’t stop me from doing a decent job – I’ll allow myself that much. I think I have made a difference, quantifying the measure of that difference I can’t do, but to make a girl laugh, to tell her she is beautiful; to give a young man pride in his personality, to say to him that he has a great future; to instil confidence, to praise, scald, touch and hug is to convince them of their worth and to say that someone cares enough to do so. We all can never have enough love.

Last days.

Monday: It’s very western to get impatient waiting for something. in Africa you have to slip into ‘African Time’ which is a vague ‘maybe’ness of scheduling which exists for many, many reasons; the heat, no electricity, no transport, being delayed by someone else, or as Karrus puts it, “a refugee mentality”, (that is, many have a ‘victim’ mentality which replaces a drive to get things done in preparation for the elusive move back to Liberia) that prompts an annoying but understandable lethargy in some. So, in order to complete the handover notes I want to leave for the next volunteer in my post, I need to wait for someone who knows where someone else is, to go get a key from a home somewhere – a key that will open a door to the room with the computer which stores my notes. That is, if I can find the printer for the computer, so the notes can be put in a hardcopy file – but the printer is in a different room that is also locked. That is of course, if I can find paper to print on as the supply cupboard is … you guessed it locked with the two key owners not yet in school. Mind you, the ink may have run out and finding Hewlett Packard cartridge no.21 is like finding a black, liquid gold. That is of course, if the electricity comes on to power the effing computer on in the first place! Amazingly, all came together in the end and all was done. I also began planning some proposals; I’ve been thinking about creating new volunteer posts for the school. The more vols, the more income as we all make a donation to be here. Mr Ballah would like a summer school where kids who’ve fallen behind can go for extra classes. Also I think a post for vols looking for less responsibility and a shorter stay would work, it’s for those with more commitments back home. It’d be more in the vain of our ‘classroom assistant’, to aid kids needing extra help or those who are more capable but currently unchallenged. I’ll work on these proposals from home.
Games club with grades 1 & 2 was a disaster; I’d lost my little toy plastic whistle, so had to speak (shout) instructions and also tried out a drama game I’d never taught before. fifty kids in the heat, distracted and hyper, they were like puppies too big for a box, cute but annoying – only just held it together. My final Girls’ Club; the theme for the term being ‘Sanitation and Hygiene’ they’re working on posters to tell children to put rubbish in bins, (bins made of wood donated by Pen, yet to be finished by the boys) currently everything’s thrown on the floor. Tried very hard to pretend not to be there at the start of the session, to see if they could run it themselves. “What’s first?” I said, there was a long, long painful silence before I caved in. An emotional end to the meeting, from me of course, when I told them how proud I was of each of them, I’ve never said truer words.

Tuesday: Was awake at 4.30am and waited in a malaise for the dawn. Went to the internet cafĂ© to weblog and check in with BA, but failed to do either due to the crapness of the place. Had a nostalgic last porridge breakfast with Pen at The Brotherhood, said goodbye to ‘broken leg chick’ whose leg is much better. Pottered around at school as had done all I needed to do the day before. I went to a teacherless classroom of crazed kids and made up a story, a bad cross between Rapunzel and Snow White, they where enraptured. Noticed whispers and badly concealed plans were being hatched for my departure. Did some faux ballroom dancing with the kids at recess, they found it hilarious for a while but then were quickly disinterested. All just passing the time until goodbye. Then all of a sudden, the kids are herded out into the courtyard to stand on it’s four sides, four rows deep. I angrily tell myself not to cry – crying is uncommon here, they say you only cry when your heart is broken and they are shocked if they see you well up. I stand in the middle of them with Mr Ballah and Pastor George (the Chair of the Board – all very African), with the rest of the staff – words are said and I’m handed a certificate. The children sing me a song – the sound is loud and yes, overwhelming. I still don’t cry, just leak a little. Speeches go on, I spot the odd face wanting a private wave and I oblige. I give them a photograph of Trafalgar Square, it’s wide and sepia and beautiful - I say this is London, where I live but my heart will be here with you, so look at it in the library and remember that I remember you. I’m given a gift of an African dress, the kids cheer and laugh and the staff say I look beautiful. It’s over and I’m relieved, I’m swamped by hands and requests for email and “don’t forget me Meez Dee!”. Then, there’s more murmurs. Pen tells me that the Social Club have planned their own ceremony – that’s what the boy’s were up to a few days ago. The library is re-jigged to set the chairs in rows and I’m asked to sit at the front with Pastor George and Karrus. Jerry, a twenty year old teacher who’s been supportive to me from the start leads the children in proceedings. Yessou, the taller than me, thirteen year old girl gets up to speak but breaks (she just been diagnosed with diabetes), I get up and hold her while she composes herself to speak, I say that my tears are infectious and I apologise, but that in my country tears can mean many things, they can mean you are happy, sad, or very proud, I say I am all of these. Then Elizabeth, a round faced girl speaks intelligently and articulately, she hasn’t attended many Club meetings because she has to cook for her family but I encourage to come whenever she can. Then Toklah Fah the handsome, stoic Chair of the Boys’ Club, shows unusual confidence in saying words that I will never forget. Rufus then hands me a gift from them – these kids who have nothing had pulled together to give me something. I shake with the effort of staying composed. It’s a gaudy necklace with wooden earrings and matching bracelet, exactly the kind of Mother’s day present that’s wonderfully awful and priceless. Mr Hunter, a sceptical miserable teacher vows that everyone will endeavour to continue the Clubs when I go, so if he’s cracked then there’s hope that the kids will get the support they need. I have to get out for a while so Moses, a Canadian newbie volunteer takes me to see the newly completed on-camp accommodation for future Ikando vols. It’s a welcome distraction and the neighbours have a cute dog that reminds me of mine and home. Then back to school and I choose to hang on for the start of Boy’s Club before leaving for the airport. I collect my bag and Pen offers to walk me back to the Holiday Feeling and see me off. The boys are working away on their waste bins, arguing over a wooden plane. I slip away, wanting to wish them a genuine ‘good luck’ for the future but knowing the thought would clamp my throat so I don’t even try. Yards away from them and almost home free. I hear a call, “Meezz Dee!”, I can only half turn and wave, reluctant to let my boys see my broken heart.
At the Holiday Feeling, Emmanuel and Brumskine (an artist who I commissioned to do a watercolour of the school) are there to see me off. I leave my clothes to the ladies who work there, but I’ve made a special connection with one of them, Theresa, she’s the thin, mouse-like woman with the story told earlier about leaving her brother at the roadside when she walked to Ghana. We would sit and talk together when she was without the other women and I was without the other volunteers. We would sit as people not divided by circumstance; the night she told me her story she sat dry eyed, even when recalling her children. I had given her some money days before, the only person I felt compelled to help financially in a substantial way, she has a quiet simplicity and integrity that draws me to her. Now we sat together in silence waiting for the car to come. The car was on ‘African Time’ of course, so I rechecked my bag and asked Pen to do all the things I’d forgotten to do - then Theresa suddenly called me into a room. She talked in her poor pigeon English and was saying something about the money I’d given her, I thought the inevitable request for more was coming but she then said clearly, “The money you have given me will pay for this…”, she pulled at the edge of her vest top to reveal a large, egg sized lump at the side of her small breast. “They will take a test to see what it is.” The lump looked hard, unlike a cyst. “Just the test?” I say, “How much to take it out?” she shakes her head, “Two point two million cedis.”. (An everyday meal for us on camp costs four to ten thousand cedis and that’s expenditure beyond their everyday pocket) She could never earn that amount of money. I empty my pockets giving her all I have. The car arrives and I’m saying bye’s. I hug Theresa. Her heart breaks as we sob onto each other’s necks. I get into the car and don’t look back.

Nuch Baker

Karrus Hayes, the founder of the school (see took me to meet a young boy who is HIV+. On the way we stopped at his home so I could meet his own three month old daughter, one of three girls. Karrus lives as most on the camp, one room in a house divided for others to share, his wife changing their daughter’s nappy on the foam ‘mattress’ on the floor. There’s just enough room in there for us to stand as I hold and coo at the baby. The conditions he lives in are a testimony to the fact that he sacrifices everything to help others.
We continue on to meet Nuch Baker, a six year old who’s mother had died due to AIDS in 2005. He’s being cared for by his mother’s friend. I don’t notice him at first, he’s behind a table selling bits and bobs with his carer beside him. He was sat quietly with knees together balancing a bowl of rice and potato greens in his lap. He was confused by my presence but politely waved a hello. He looked small, the build of a four year old, so frail and moving slowly, his skin like tracing paper. His hair was brittle and a strange colour, the tone of an elderly man before going grey. Karrus explained that he needs sponsorship for anti-retro virus medication and the fare to get it to the camp clinic. In all $9 per month, I figure that’s about £7? I’m already donating to the school and responding to some other stories that have fallen to me, so if anyone is interested in helping Nuch, let me know.

Sunday, 4 February 2007


It's true that every one has a story, we all have a past which helps form our present. Some have trauma, hardship or misfortune, some have sadness, pain or loneliness; some are blessed with love, joy and contentment. Most have a combination of the above gelled together by circumstance. In the diversity work I've done in businesses, we look at the factors that make us who we are. One piece of the puzzle - which is often glossed over - is Geographical Location, i.e. the place we are born and where we live.
The people of Buduburam too have stories, but the time of their birth and the random handout of fate meant that their mothers sweated and screamed to push them out into a continent of hardship and a region destined to give them horrors and displacement.
As people have got to know me, their stories slowly unfold only prompted when the moment is apt and with, I hope, sensitivity. On the surface you can fool yourself into believing that everyone is fairly ok, they mostly dress ok, they have an infrastructure of sorts and a routine, people seem to be getting by. But if you look deeper, really see that they're not slim but thin; look into their eyes and notice the desperation behind the greeting, the pride concealing pain. I could relate the details of where the stories were told to me, the atmosphere and silences; I could retell how they spoke with emphasis and colour or with muted awkwardness. Some spoke with great gesture, smiling to reassure that 'they're fine now', others find it harder to conceal the trauma and a flick of the hand from a heavy slouch gestures to their minds to halt the redding of their eyes.
I'm not a reporter - it's not my place to poorly regurgitate the truth of these refugees lives, but there is a commonality to the stories outside of 'Geographical Location': Violence. The ingredients may alter; my mother ... my sister ... brother ... me; I was abandoned ... betrayed ... captured; they mutilated me ... tortured ... killed. The stories can differ so, thus making them freshly horrific: The intellectual, confident 21 year old who has become a pal to me, he jokes while he says he was told to lie on a pile of dead bodies to be more easily shot, but his refusal to do so and ability to talk to his captors meant he instead became their 'pet', at the age of six. The matriarchal woman who we sometimes go to for food who was bound so tightly her upper arms bear the rope scars. The seventeen year old boy who quietly, bitterly confesses he has thoughts of suicide because his mother, brother and sister have not eaten for days again and he doesn't know what to do about it, feeling caught between boy and manhood. The gentle lady who works where I stay, such soft features and usually playful eyes - she was forced to leave her brother's body at the side of the road on the walk from Liberia to Ghana. He'd been bound in chains and set alight.
SO many stories; most are separated from siblings, parents or children but pray that wherever they are, they are 'doing well'.
Yes, all of us have a story, but the people of Budu are in the thick of theirs and are still hungry, still sick, still waiting for a miracle to take them away from Ghana.