Friday, July 28, 2017

We have the 'Keys to Sandema'!

After a 31 hour transit, and some bonding over 'Middle-Eastern' cuisine in Dubai airport, The UK volunteers made it to Ghana! We spent our first week culturally acclimatising with three extensive training days courtesy of the International Service staff in Tamale. 

It was during these sessions that L.I.F.E was born – a twelve strong team; comprising members equally from across the UK and Ghana.  Our mission statement: empowering disabled people in the Builsa district through integration and sustainable business practices. It was not all hard work in Tamale though – the evening activities and a visit from a high-energy dancing group ensured the ice was truly broken – and by the time we boarded the mini-bus to Sandema there was a seamless integration between the UK and Ghanaian volunteers.

Cohort 8 have arrived and are feeling optimistic about the project ahead!

After a rocky three hour journey, we were welcomed to Sandema by the hugging trees which run throughout the rural town. Sandema is found in the Upper East region of Ghana – and to be blunt the lack of infrastructure and development came as a shock to many of the volunteers. Nonetheless, the small population of the town (just over 6,000), ensures a friendly community vibe; and every three days the town comes to life with a bustling market drawing in people from neighbouring villages to haggle for a bargain on any food or clothing item one could possibly want. The most effective way to integrate and fight the culture shock was to join a local host-home – and it's easy to see why this unique experience is regarded by many as the highlight of their international service.

Each UK volunteer and their in-country counterpart was warmly welcomed by their host-families. I was embraced by Madame Faustina, and after a couple of meals together we became completely comfortable exchanging jokes (mostly about my incompetence at eating TZ and Fufu). I even bought her a chicken in the market yesterday! In the house we each live with a counterpart: being paired ensures a strong relationship from the beginning; whilst the late night conversations provide insights into each other's culture like nothing else could. Introducing my counterpart, Raphael, to James Bond was a particular highlight; car-chases and explosions are universally appreciated. Together we spent the weekend getting to know the area, and from Monday the entire group began our integration process by introducing ourselves and the project to key members of the community.

Community Integration

Our meeting with the DPO President Mr Gilbert
Our first meeting was with the Disabled People's Organisation (DPO) President, Mr. Gilbert. With a wealth of experience he was able to authoritatively voice concerns on behalf of the disabled people in the region. He earmarked in particular the inadequate hospital facilities. Importantly, he reminded us of the disability issues. He earmarked in particular infrastructural improvements needed in the hospital. Importantly, he reminded us that disability is something for us all to be concerned about; as everyone's mobility decreases as they age.

Meeting the Matron

When we visited the hospital, we began to understand his concerns. There are only two doctors in the entire region! We heard the concerns of Matron Mary. She mentioned the facilities are incredibly lacking for disabled people. She also shared many of her concerns regarding the treatment of mental health patients. Mental health has been earmarked as an area of particular interest we can focus on. Before we could begin to tackle these problems we needed to make key institutions aware of our presence and our mission. 

A lot of people attend Church or Mosque in Sandema: so in order to integrate I put on my Sunday clothes and introduced myself in front of the congregation. Unfortunately, a Northern Irish accent was, understandably, difficult for some Ghanaians to understand, and I was met with laughter. Nonetheless, I was warmly welcomed by the pastor and the congregation as a whole.

It was an honor meeting the Builsa Chief.
Perhaps the most exciting (if not surreal), experience of the week was the honour of meeting the Chief of Sandema alongside his elders. Although no longer having formal power,  his traditional authority continues to hold considerable sway over the local people. He did not communicate with us in English – instead in Buli, so Samuel did a wonderful job of translating. In order to bypass the language barrier we brought a gift to show our appreciation. We decided to forgo the usual gift of whiskey for a more family friendly alternative: cola nuts! As a local saying goes: 'he who brings cola brings life.'  Following this we were warmly welcomed – he said when he was a child people feared if they walked too far they would 'fall into a pit', but now 'the world is a small village' – thankfully without a pit. He then bestowed upon us the “Keys to Sandema”.  What will we do with those keys? Glad you've asked – We've hit the ground running following the integration. Here are some of our current plans going forward:

·      Youth Club’s have been established from the 3rd of August at the District Assembly. We have also spoken with a government representative to possibly start entrepreneurship awareness courses during some of these sessions.

·       Radio sensitisations: five one-hour long sessions have been planned. These will be live on 106.5fm Radio Builsa which broadcasts to the entire Northern Region of Ghana.

·       There is a superstitious stigma often attached to mental health conditions in particular. As the Matron in the hospital told us: “This is Africa, everyone is superstitious.” Therefore, mental health has been earmarked as an area of particular interest we wish to focus on in our sensitisations.

·       Megan, one of team L.I.F.E's UK volunteers, has already begun drawing up a petition to call for better access for the disabled in the hospital.

Unofficial highlights of the week:

Blessing the new car alongside CBR

·       Kate's birthday – including some very dodgy dancing in Madam Gladys' living room.

·       Unknowingly forming a prayer circle around a car

·       Seeing a baboon comfortably riding on the back of a motorcycle.

·       Sabeera and Tia learning never to provoke a mother goat again!

Overall, we're feeling optimistic about the project. The ice is broken, we are acclimatised, fully aware of our goals, and excited to face the challenges to make our plans into reality.

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