Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elmina Castle- Hannah DeGraaf

I find it very easy to forget that we are in Ghana. I get so immersed in everyday activities and all the fun we are having that I forget where we actually are. But then I see or experience something, and I am instantly reminded. One of these times was when we went to Elmina Castle, one of the remaining castles that was a stop on the Atlantic slave trade. The castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 and originally began as a trading post for materials, predominantly gold and ivory, before turning to human trade. In 1637, the Dutch seized the castle from the Portuguese and in 1872, the Dutch ceded the castle to the British when the slave trade was abolished.

Walking through the castle and learning about the history behind every structure was a very somber and humbling experience. The female and male slave dungeons were very small considering the hundreds of slaves that were in each dungeon. This caused for close quarters amongst the slaves within the cell, a space where they spent all of their time and where they went to the bathroom. It was also dark and musky – there were no real windows to allow for light or airflow. The dungeons were starkly contrasted with the governor’s quarters, which were expansive, open, and airy, and consisted of a bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room. The disparity of the quality of life between those in charge and those enslaved was very evident. The governor’s quarters were located right above the female slave dungeon. This was so that the governor could choose a woman right from his balcony to come to his bedroom, which was reached by a wooden staircase that led directly to the bedroom from the female slave quarters.

The view from the governor’s balcony down to the female slave dungeons

Two of the most difficult things to see at Elmina Castle were the “door of no return” and the cell where slaves were sent to die. The door of no return was on the seaside of the castle and was a very skinny, very short opening that led out to the waiting boats to take the slaves away to the larger European ships that they would spend the next three months on for a journey called the Middle Passage, a trip in which many slaves died due to very poor conditions that caused diseases and rough weather. To imagine men and women squeezing through such a small doorway, being terrified for they do not know where they are going, is very hard for head and heart to imagine.  

When slaves broke the rules or tried to escape, they were sent to a cell to die. The cell was much smaller than the male and female dungeons and had even less openings for airflow and light to enter. We entered this particular cell, and after all of us entered, our tour guide shut the door and we were enveloped in darkness. The few minutes that we spent in that room were very eerie and heartbreaking for the ground we were standing on was same ground that people took their last breaths on and even though it was hundreds of years ago, you could still feel the pain and the fear. The goal of this cell was to further torture and punish the disobedient slaves, while also making an example of them to all the others.

The castle is strikingly beautiful - the tall white walls with contrasting black doors and shutters everywhere are visually very appealing. In all directions around the castle are spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and the fishing community in Elmina. All the beauty surrounding the castle and even within it felt very contrasting to what we were learning and feeling as we went on our tour. It is often very difficult to imagine the horrors of slavery, but walking through Elmina Castle, I could clearly envision the pain and suffering, fear, and unjustness of the castle’s history.

The vibrant fishing community in Elmina

When we were driving away from the castle, we were all pretty quiet. When we got home that night, we discussed how we felt and how the day impacted us as a group. All of us have learned about slavery throughout our educations, but this was different than learning through a textbook and brought up all new emotions. We talked about the guilt we felt for our ancestors’ actions, as well as the guilt we feel personally for some of the privilege we have today being a result of these terrible things that happened in the past. It was a day that required a lot of reflection to understand the inhumanity behind it all and a great way to remind us that even though this tragic event happened in the past, there is inequality and disparity of human rights all over the world that still exists to this day, through racism, modern day slavery, women’s rights, and so much more, and that we should not slack on our advocacy for equality and human rights. 

I believe that it was very important for us as a group to go to Elmina Castle. While it was very difficult and hard to see, it was a great learning and enlightening experience for us as human beings, and also because it is a large part of Ghana’s history and was impactful on its culture today. During this trip, we have been working to immerse ourselves into all aspects of Ghanaian culture, and I feel that this is just as important if not more to be learning about to truly understand certain aspects of Ghanaian life.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The ISHEW of Water- Katelyn O'Grady

On July 25th, our group had the wonderful opportunity to travel to a nearby village, Atekyedo (pronounced ata-che-dough).  One of our Ghanaian friends, Atta Keelson, is the director of an NGO called ISHEW, International Sustainable Health, Education, and Water. It is a fairly new NGO (2010) and has some close ties to GVSU. Atta asked that we accompany him to Atekyedo to help clean the Bio-Sand Filters in the village. This is something that each group from past years of the service-learning program has helped with since the filters have been in place. These filters look like three-foot-tall, blue plastic garbage cans with a clear plastic tube coming out the side. Inside are layers of sand and other sediments which filter the water as it is poured through so it is safe enough to drink. The diffusing basket, the lid and the plastic tubing should be cleaned once every two weeks, while the filter itself should be cleaned once every three months. Atta came to the hostel on the 24th and gave us a demonstration on how to clean the filters and it seemed easy enough, so we were excited to go out and help!

Bio-Sand Filter

Every morning, we all remind each other to take our anti-malaria medications but that morning we were also making sure those who get motion sick (like me) took their Dramamine. We packed up the bus with the gifts for the village and water sachets and were on our way. Thank goodness for the Dramamine because that ride was probably one of the bumpiest, slowest bus rides since we have been here.

The differences between Accra and Winneba are one thing, but traveling to Atakyedo was an entirely new step. This village was tiny farming community in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. It was immediately apparent why this village needed the Bio-Sand filters since there was no running water from pipes, and the closest water source was a 30 minute round-trip walk, and even then the water they collect is not safe to directly drink. The idea came up that maybe they would benefit from a well, but the land is not suitable for that.

We had been told by our supervisors that we would have to meet the Chief of the village before we could do any work there. As we pulled up, the Chief was there to welcome us as we walked off the bus. We had been instructed that when we greet the Chief, we should shake with our right hand and then our left hand should hold the bottom of our right forearm. After greeting the Chief, we walked to an open area in the middle of the village for the official greeting ceremony. They set up some benches and chairs in a circle (ish) for the community members and ourselves to sit in. The men, women and children each sat in separate sections. In my experience with the Ghanaian children, they have all been pretty out going and are always willing to say “Obrouni, how are you?” when we pass. These children were the most well behaved children I have encountered while in Ghana. They all sat very respectfully and quietly. Since most of the people in Atekyedo did not speak much English if at all, we had Samuel, our Ghanaian friend who studied at GVSU last fall, serve as our interpreter. Most of the time, I had absolutely no idea what was going on or what was being said, with the exceptional “Grand Valley” or “students” being thrown in the conversation every so often.

It is tradition that when you greet a chief that you bring gifts. Our gifts were Peach Schnapps and a bit of money. After the Chief and the elders accepted the gifts, they used the schnapps for a ceremonial prayer, pouring the liquor on the earth and praying aloud. One thing that I enjoyed and brought me back to my high school days was starting and ending the conference with prayer, just as we used to start and end each school day. The one thing that seemed a little strange was that the man who was saying the prayer removed his right shoe before doing actually saying the prayer. When we were finished with prayer, the Chief and the village leaders welcomed us and asked what our purpose was for visiting Atekyedo. Our faculty advisor, Dr. Azizur Molla, introduced us and explained that we were students from GVSU in Michigan who have come to strengthen the relationship between the village and GVSU, as well as keeping the promise to come back each year to help with the Bio-Sand filters.

Azizur said, “We are all citizens of a global village, where we are able to learn from and help each other.” This stuck out to me because of some of our previous discussions we have had during debriefings. We have discussed how some people have this image of traveling to “help the poor people of Africa,” yet sometimes that service might not be something the people of that area want. A quote from an article I read was “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote made me think about what Azizur was saying at the Chief meeting.

The trip we came on is called a service-learning trip for a reason. We are here first to serve, whether that be with Challenging Heights, the Ghana Health Service, or ISHEW in doing whatever they need us to do rather than doing what we think they need, and second to learn. This learning is partially from the credits GVSU awards us, but more importantly from the lessons we learn through our experiences with the people and environment here.  In helping the people in Atekyedo, we learned skills that could be handy at any point in the future if we were to work with ISHEW or Bio-Sand filters again. But more importantly, the experience there had made an impact on each of us in one way or another.

One of the things GVSU has done in working with Atekyedo is raising money for a cassava press and a building to house it. The Chief told us that the press is no longer in working condition because we have been unable to raise enough money to build a structure to house it. This was really sad to hear since the cassava project has the potential to bring in new jobs and rev up the economy in this little village. We are still hopeful that we will be able to help provide funds to fulfill our promise in the future.

Thanking the Chief and village elders

After the meeting with the chief, we walked down the road for a tour of the school ISHEW advocated to the government to build for the children in Atekyedo. It was set up for students up to 6th grade. It was a very nice school with huge blackboards in each room and had plenty of desks to go around. While we were wandering around, the children followed us quietly as shadows. One of the classrooms had song lyrics for what looked like a church song on the blackboard. When the children saw it, they started to sing. Their voices sounded so nice together. Once they finished their song, we started singing the only fante song we know, Da na se. They joined in too, which was awesome!! Once we finished singing, we presented the head master of the school and the Chief our gifts for the school. These included some class set books and other school supplies that they needed. They were so happy to have received these supplies which made us happy to feel like we made even the smallest difference to the school!

Atekyedo School

We finished up at the school and headed back to the village to be introduced to the filters and how to clean them. We were split into five groups of three and given the cleaning supplies for the filters: small sponges with string tied to them to clean the tubing, chlorine bleach to make the water safe to drink after cleaning the filter, a bar of soap to clean the top and diffuser, a bucket to collect water, a cup to measure the flow rate of the filter, and a spoon to scoop out excess water from the filter before cleaning if needed. Atta brought us into one of the houses, which already had a clean filter just to show us the parts of the filters and demonstrate how it works. When we walked into the house I honestly I do not know what I was expecting to see, but it definitely wasn’t emptiness. The house had only two rooms, the first of which was almost completely empty and the second had just the filter, a bed and a dresser. I was somewhat surprised not to see a bathroom or kitchen. I guess I really shouldn’t have been since I  see people preparing meals outside and others using the sewers as bathrooms all the time but I never really thought that maybe they do that because they didn’t have things like that in their homes. That’s definitely something I have obviously always taken for granted, especially since I have a kitchen and a bathroom (a toilet and shower with running water) both at home and here at the hostel.  

Cleaning Supplies

Atta wanted to show us how to actually clean the filters so we wandered to another home. The filter in this home was very dirty, perfect for demonstration. We removed the lid and diffuser to clean with the soap, scooped the extra water from the top of the filter into the bucket with the spoon, and then stirred the remaining water very lightly, making sure not to disturb the sand layer at the top. We removed the tubing and cleaned it with the sponge and string. The only thing left to do was check the flow rate. For this, we filled the Bio-Sand Filter with some water and collected water in the cup. We timed the water coming out of the filter for one minute and measured the amount that came out. If it was less than half a regular water bottle, then the filter needed to be stirred again. If not, the water is ready to be collected. This water isn’t as safe to drink straight away since the sediment layers may have been disturbed with the cleaning so we added two or three drops of the chlorine bleach to the water to sanitize it. This water is still not safe enough to drink either so we ask that they let the collected water sit in the bucket for two days and give the home a pack of water sachets as a supplement.
We thought we were all ready to go out and clean but then we realized that we had five groups but only four interpreters. We needed the interpreters to help us collect information through questionnaires that ISHEW had created. The questionnaires were used to collect data for ISHEW, for example, if people know how to clean the filters themselves, where and how they get the water to put in the filter, and how the filters have been beneficial to the family. The villagers did not speak much English, so the interpreters were very important to have in each group. My group got split up so we made-due with what supplies we had and borrowed from other nearby groups when we needed something we didn’t have. Each group was assigned to clean seven filters but fellow GV student Chloe and I had to try to get five while trying to share Atta as our interpreter with another group. This made things difficult enough, but there also wasn’t an organized way to monitor what houses had been cleaned and which hadn’t. The village was basically a bunch of randomly placed homes and structures which would have made it hard to navigate and organize even if we did have a better system. Also, the randomness of the homes also caused some confusion when it came to house numbers. Each home was supposed to have a house number but some had the same number as others, and some didn’t have a number which made it increasingly difficult to differentiate the houses on the questionnaires.

Another somewhat frustrating thing was that we did not have sufficient cleaning supplies. We had the soap but no sponges or rags to clean the lids and diffusers. I felt bad asking the homeowners to borrow their own cleaning supplies, but we wanted to clean the filters so it was a necessary request. 

Cleaning the filters
In all of this, there were redeeming moments; it was when I realized that the people of Atekyedo would not be able to clean the filters the way we were on their own because they do not have the chlorine water handy in their homes. This made me realize I was doing something to actually help since the filters are supposed to be cleaned this way every three months, but I am almost positive they do not get cleaned that frequently.

While filling out one of the questionnaires, a man responded to the question on where he gets his water to put in the filter by saying that he will collect it every time it rains so he does not have to make the 30 minute round trip walk to the nearest water source. I was happily surprised by how resourceful this man was and wondered why other families or individuals of Atekyedo didn’t do the same thing.  At the same time, however, it got me thinking about the water I have in my life that could be in a bottle, from the faucet, from the shower head, in the toilet, anywhere, and how it seems to just always be there for me when I need it. Thinking about having to walk 30 minutes for water that isn’t even clean enough to drink and having to put it through a filter really got to me.

Interviewing for the questionnaires

I found myself comparing what I had even at the hostel with what these people had in their homes. I have electricity and wifi, a bed to sleep in, a fan to keep me cool and so many other things that I don’t even think about just because they have always been a part of my life. I always have water clean enough to drink when I need it, and food to snack on when I get even the slightest bit hungry. When at home I get hungry and look in the pantry for something to eat, but then walk away from a full cupboard because it’s not exactly what I had a taste for in that moment. It is pretty frustrating to think about and feel so undeserving of what I have in comparison to the people in Atekyedo. I didn’t do anything to deserve being born into my family instead of a family here or in a similar community. Since this is obviously something I am not able to change, it is something I need to internalize and be mindful of at home. Even if that means just doing something small like taking colder, shorter showers or something big like working with GV’s student organization to create a fundraiser for ISHEW and the people of Atekyedo.

All in all, it was a really nice to visit Atekyedo and feel like I was doing something worthwhile to the people, and I am excited to work with Atta Keelson and ISHEW again in one way or another!

Check out ISHEW's blog at or Facebook page at 

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's fine by me, if we never leave! - Lily Wyble

Ghana is absolutely amazing. And as we draw closer and closer to our departure date, I try to think less about it and more about making the most of the time we have left. However, this last week has been a great time to sit and reflect on our experiences thus far and the relationships that have been built.

Last weekend, the 12th and 13th, we had our final presentations and exams for our class that we completed during the first week of our trip. Getting this over with was a huge weight off of all of our shoulders, and I know we were all so relieved. That Saturday night, a bunch of us were sitting on the porch listening to music and playing cards like usual, and then thanks to fellow GVSU student Alexis our worlds were rocked as we learned what may be the greatest game I have ever played: NERTZ. It’s like solitaire with a partner against 6 other pairs of people all playing off the same cards and it involved a lot of yelling, squealing, and cracking up. I was sweating more playing NERTZ than I think I ever have while working out, and my stomach hurt from laughing afterwards, which has become a very common occurrence with this group of girls. There was some competition between some of the teams, but fellow GVSU student Steph and I were so far behind I could just have a good time with absolutely no hope of ever winning. We played for easily 3 hours that night, and for the next 3 nights and afternoons and whenever we got the chance. NERTZ is just one of many things that have brought this group closer together and one of many things that has made me realize how lucky I am to have been blessed with this opportunity.

After our final exams, we got the chance to focus more of our attention on our individual placements in the Challenging Heights school, office, or the Ghana Health System. We didn’t have any set schedule for the whole group, so it was a chance for us to become more independent living in Winneba. Almost every day, I walk to the junction to catch a taxi by myself, saying good morning and being addressed as Adjoa (Monday born) by all the Ghanaians I see on a daily basis. I ride to work at the Challenging Heights office and am there for the morning, get rice and pineapple for lunch across the street, and work for a good part of the afternoon. I am working on creating a database for all of Challenging Heights’ records that allows them to more easily access the data. After initially creating the framework for the database last week, I was able to enter more data this week and get a good chunk of the forms from the office fully entered. While I am not going to be able to finish the whole thing, I know that this will create a good base for future work to be done as well. Other than working in the office, some of the other girls are working in the schools doing reading assisting, and still some others are working in the health system in different areas.

The relationships we have formed in Ghana are one of the most important things that I am taking away from this trip. Not only with the Ghanaians, but with each other. I am so happy to say that I now have 14 other best friends I can hang out all the time with when we get back to GV. We have become like a second family while on our journey here. Emmanuel owns the hostel, and we are fortunate to have made yet another group of people we can call our family. His extended family ranges in age, and are always there to help us cook, help us understand Fante, teach us a new card game, or just to talk with us. They have made our stay in Winneba so much better than I imagined. After living in Winneba for four weeks and slowly adjusting to the Ghanaian culture, I can say that I feel truly at home here.

We have thought about leaving and our thoughts follow these lyrics by Andy Grammer, “I’m just sayin it’s fine by me if we never leave, we could live like this forever it’s fine by me.” So while I am getting sadder by the day that we have to leave, I am also reminded of all the wonderful things that have happened so far and that makes me overjoyed. 

Don’t worry family and friends, we are still excited to see you!

Shopping Saturday: Our day trip to Accra- Nikki Bush

This week in our service site at Challenging Heights we have been working on our reading assisting with children in the library at the school. Now that we have completed the advocates program we are developing a daily routine for our time we spend serving. Fellow GVSU student Paige and I spend our mornings in the library presenting a PowerPoint to small groups of teachers on three methods used in the United States to teach reading in elementary school. So far the feedback from these presentations has been extremely positive and we are looking forward to more interactions with lower elementary teachers at the school. For the rest of the day we assist students with their reading in the library. This involves us sitting one on one with students and hearing them read out loud, helping students understand the context of words or how to pronounce words they do not know, or picking books that are just right for the student’s various reading levels. We are becoming more familiar with the students in each class and look forward every day to interact with them more!

This weekend we made the decision as a group to utilize our free days and head back to Accra for a day of shopping and adventures in the city where we started this amazing trip. The morning began with 14 excited ladies ready for a day of fun! Fellow GVSU student Kali happened to bring some cds that were popular when we were younger (this included, to name a few, “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, “Metamorphosis” by Hilary Duff, and a Dixie Chicks album) and we had a major jam session on the way there.

By the time we got to the arts market we were fully prepared to take on the merchants with our newly acquired skills in negotiating and a few Fante words (most importantly the word for no, dabi). We pulled into the parking lot and much to our surprise there were only a few people scattered about. This reassured us that we made the right decision in making this the first stop on our day trip. Many of us got into smaller groups to weave through the aisles of wooden crafts, paintings, fabric, jewelry, and more. We came to the arts market with the intention of buying all of our souvenirs that we have not had the chance to purchase so far. With a little extra spending money from our leaders, we also had our eyes peeled for things that we wanted to take home for ourselves to remember this trip. We were given about two and a half hours to make our final purchases and head back to the bus.  By the time we had to leave, everyone had armfuls of things they had bought for presents for themselves and also to give to their family and friends. Some common things that were brought back were backpacks, wooden animals, Ghana gear, and paintings. The energy was extremely high and everyone was talking over each other, trying to describe what they found and how many cedis they had spent.

After the arts market we made our way to Global Mamas, a non-profit and fair trade organization that allows women throughout Africa to make goods and become financially independent through the sale of their items. Everything throughout the store was beautiful and the prints were so unique. My favorite print I saw in the store was red with big sunflowers stamped on it. There were so many things to buy and it was so hard to decide on what to get! To check out more or even online shop here is the website:

Some of the amazing prints Global Mamas has to buy all sorts of things in!

Since the first half of the day was spent shopping we quickly were hungry and ready for some food at Frankie’s! We had been to this American/ Lebanese restaurant the first week we were in Accra so most of us knew what we were going to order. It goes without saying that since there were milkshakes on the menu almost everyone ordered that to drink! We were also excited to get our American food fix before heading back out to continue our day. While we were there we ran into the other group from GVSU that is currently in Ghana who stayed in Cape Coast for four weeks on a different study abroad program. Sadly, they were eating their last meal in Ghana and were heading to the airport that evening. We collectively agreed that we were not ready to be the ones to leave this place we now call home! Thank goodness we still have some time before we have to be the ones to say goodbye!

The restaurant where we ate lunch, Frankie’s!

Some of our GVSU students walking around Accra!

We stopped at the Shoprite grocery store after we finished our meal. There were some last minute snacks that we felt the need to pick up as well as some essentials for the rest of our meals in Winneba. After only spending a small amount of time there we made our way back to the bus to head home.

One of our friends from Challenging Heights, Brigitte, told us about a place called the “Circle” and described it as a market that featured cheap shoes, movies, and seasons of tv shows. Since it was on our way back home to Winneba we thought it was necessary to stop. We were given only 45 minutes but in that short amount of time we got some great deals! Most of us walked away with a movie or two to watch once we got home for only 3 cedis a piece!

Throughout the week some of us girls have been communicating with our Fante teacher from Accra, Charles, about the fact that we would be in town. He told us in the morning that he had pulled a muscle and couldn’t walk around the markets with us, which was disappointing news since we missed him so much. But while we were at the “Circle” our Ghanaian leader, Samuel, got a text from Charles saying that he was planning on hitching a ride back to Winneba with us to tag along on our trip to Cape Coast the next day! We were ecstatic and when we saw his grinning face walking down the street towards the bus we couldn’t help but to yell and wave out the window to him! We had a lot of catching up to do and Charles made sure he asked every student on the bus what they have been doing in Winneba at their respective service sites. The rest of the car ride was spent time singing our hearts out to some more classic pre-teen music.

Fellow GVSU student Erin brought up a good point during the day that even though we all went shopping together we still didn’t know what each person had bought throughout the day. In order to showcase our purchases the first thought was a show and tell to present our items. This event quickly expanded and turned into an open house style demonstration of our things. When we got home everyone was asked to put their new purchases on their beds and then as a group we would walk around and look through all of the items. It was so great to see what everyone got and get some ideas on other things we might still want to look out for to get for ourselves or as gifts for others.

Although we are sad it is already one of the last weekends we will spend in Ghana, we are so thankful to have bonding moments like these to solidify our relationships we have with each other in the group. The shopping was fun but the little moments in between are the things we are going to remember the most when we get back home!