Susanne and I spent three weeks in Ghana, twenty-one days that overflowed with wonder. Each minute seemed to contain something astonishing: the way people shook our hands with an enthusiastic finger snap, how they greeted us wherever we went with a sincere "You are welcome," the beauty of the jungle landscape, the cacophony of chickens and goats that were seemingly everywhere, the hot hot heat pressing down on us day and night, the way people carried large and unlikely objects on their heads as they traveled on foot, the number of people that would pile in or on any moving vehicle, and the way drivers negotiated the roads peppered with giant craters and roller-coaster bumps. An abundance of amazing sights and sounds.
Everywhere we went, the colour of our skin turned heads, and we'd hear cries of "ye vu!" - meaning 'white one.' At first this was a bit of a shock - back home in Canada you wouldn't dream of calling out to a stranger like that. We could easily hear this fifty times a day, but generally people were simply trying to get our attention to wave and say hello. Ghanaians have a reputation for being friendly, and they did not disappoint. Children, in particular, found it hard to hide their enthusiasm when they saw us.
After a few days of settling in, it was time for our project to get started. On Sunday evening at dusk, we arrived in the village of Bakpe.
Located a bumpy half-hour drive from the substantial town of Ho, where we were staying, Bakpe is a village of about 400 people and has no electricity or running water. Dozens of children were waiting for us when we drove in, many more came running to catch a glimpse of us. But that evening we were there to meet with the Chief and the village elders, and to collect their stories which we would later turn into shadow puppetry plays with the children.
We gathered in one of the school rooms, about ten of us in all, dozens of children silently spying through the windows and doors. The sun had set and the darkness was complete, but for the lantern on the table in front of us. We set up our recording devices - technology which seemed so other-worldly in this setting - and without any further ado, the elders took turns telling us traditional stories in their language of Ewe (pronounced 'eh-way').
Ghanaian stories bear many similarities to traditional tales from other world cultures: they typically involve animals, and are used to share morals as well as explaining how things in the world came to be. As I sat there in the near-darkness, all I could do was listen, uncomprehending, to the rich, resonant tones of the story-tellers' voices, and think to myself how incredibly lucky I was to be experiencing this moment. Stories are so precious. To have strangers from another culture tell us their stories with such willingness and trust... what an incredible gift.
The following morning we returned to Bakpe and were given a tour around the school.
|The Kindergarten class takes place in a hut... not exactly ideal in the rainy season.|
Our stories had yet to be translated, so we couldn't get started on the shadow plays. Instead, we sat in the forgiving shade of the large mango tree in the school yard. Children gathered around us, eyes wide with expectation. We read aloud some books we'd brought with us: Alligator Pie, Oh The Places You'll Go, and the landslide hit, The Snowy Day. Snow! I don't think I've talked about snow so much in my life; it was a real fascination for them. We showed the kids how to make paper snowflakes; throughout the course of the week we noticed them making their own snowflakes - one little girl even made two miniature ones which she wore hanging from her earrings! The highlight of our first day in Bakpe was the joyous task of handing out art supplies to 75 kids: pencil cases containing scissors, pencil, eraser, sharpener, a pack of pastels and a small notebook. The kids were ecstatic to receive such a gift, given to them by our many generous donors back home. I had seriously spent months thinking about stuff... it was amazing to see it finally put into these kids' hands.
Tuesday morning we started working on our three shadow puppetry plays. I have run similar programs a dozen times back home, and was anticipating this project would unfold more or less as it usually did. But there's one thing that I hadn't accounted for: the language barrier. I had been told that "everyone in Ghana speaks English." Uh - not true! Certainly many people do, especially in larger centers, but in smaller villages like Bakpe, English was definitely a second language. Comprehension levels were very mixed - so essentially all of my classroom instruction had to be translated, either by a teacher or our host Makosa.
Despite any language barrier, these kids were incredibly well-behaved, courteous and attentive. It was such a pleasure to be in their midst.
The only problem with this bilingual system was that everything took twice as long... and we didn't have twice as much time. The days flew by... roles were assigned and shadow puppets were first sketched, then built. Our bilingual rehearsals started on Thursday, and were planned to continue all day Friday, in preparation for our community performance Friday night.
Little did we know that the community had other plans for our Friday morning...