Paulette’s Trip to Ghana
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Paulette Cote, and I have been a member of WPUC since 2000, when I arrived to see what this community was all about and what was available for children’s programming. That first Sunday I was tapped on the shoulder by Linda Will, was asked to teach Sunday school and the rest is history…
When Sharon asked me to speak about my experience in Ghana, I said “sure”, but as I sat to write about my journey I realized how hard it was going to be for me to capture the juxtaposition and myriad of feelings I’ve had both during my trip and since my return.
So I’m going to rely on videos, art and poetry to bring you along on my journey to West Africa which began a long time ago.
As a young girl who was the oldest of four children, I loved to read to escape my siblings whenever I had the chance, which was not so often as my father worked for VIA rail and was away from home as often as he was with us. I learned responsibility at a young age, became a caregiver when Dad was away and in return was often taken on train rides most every Spring break and Summer holidays. I loved my trips across Canada both East and West and so, it’s not really surprising that one of my greatest childhood dreams was to travel to another continent, specifically Africa, probably due to my love of National Geographic and all the colourful stories of the tribes, their dances, their drumming, and the exotic animals. In my dream I was always sharing books with people because I had been exposed to the same media that we all were of poverty, and dying children with no food or education. I remember spending an entire summer with my sister and our gang of friends, painting rock people which we sold along the sidewalk on Autumnwood to raise funds for African missionaries. I think we raised $65 which seemed like an incredible amount of money 45 years ago. I have been blessed over and over again as I have travelled to Japan, Mongolia and now Ghana all in the last two years as so many life dreams and trials have both challenged and uplifted me. I now believe that I was being gifted by God’s grace at the same time as I was experiencing the death of my father and the end of a career that had been incredibly fulfilling. A person just cannot stay down when they keep being invited to live their childhood dreams and have fantastic adventures and experiences in which they are protected from real harm.
Fast forward to last Christmas when my cousin Michelle called to ask me to accompany her in her journey to Ghana to help be a bridge in bringing her husband to Canada. I said “yes” again, a theme in my life which sometimes gets me into trouble but mostly leads me to growth and gratitude. Michelle lived with my family when she was in grade 12 and is more sister than cousin and we share our faith, creativity, love and interest in travel, multi- cultures, Canada’s First Nations (as her maternal Grandmother was Cree) and our work in mental health, she as a psych nurse with experience in hospitals, schools, and penitentiaries while I worked on an education team in Child and Adolescent Mental health for 13 years and now as Community Liaison Worker at a French Immersion school. We are closely connected and so I said “yes”, but really I had said “yes” many years ago when she met Julius Tekpoh through their interest in poetry and storytelling of each of their nations, Michelle, exploring her identity to better understand her mother’s experience with residential school and the impact it had on Michelle as the eldest child of five and their family as they battled addictions to stave off the pain of the past. Michelle had a vision in 2009 and formed Rhythm International whose website I’ll show you to help you understand how things began –
Since that time I’ve made two trips to Edmonton to help with fundraising for the hospital project and to celebrate the publication of the first Sun and Snow poetry anthology written by poets from Canada and Ghana alike. Since that first project Michelle kept gently badgering me to share some of my writing with her project. Finally, in 2013, after the death of both our fathers within a week of each other and our grieving together first in Edmonton, then in Winnipeg, she convinced me it was time to share my poetry which is neither earth shattering nor revolutionary, but it was heart felt and it was mine to share. I agreed, it passed their jury, and I’ve had the incredible adventure of being published in the last two anthologies and being invited to Edmonton to share a stage with poet laureates of Edmonton Alice Major, Pierrette Requier and Anna Marie Sewell which was incredibly humbling and a whole lot of fun. This time funds were being raised for a library project that Michelle’s son Eric had been inspired to support after spending time in Gomoa Ayanful with his friend Kweku and his Fante village family.
The fourth and final anthology was published this year and entitled Returning Home. It is in honour of the Truth and Reconciliation process that began officially in Canada on June 1st, 2008. Since beginning the project Michelle is not only writing poetry but now does beautiful artwork with a First Nations influence which is featured in the final book which I will send around. I have a number of her pieces framed in my office at work welcoming some of my families.
Ok, back to saying “yes”, we then prepared for our trip with the required shots, mosquito netting, every medical, pharmaceutical, first aid and girl scout gear packed you could possibly imagine and we either used it all or someone else was in need which really reinforced the need to plan and be prepared for every eventuality. Who knew duct tape would be a repair for gushing water pipes in our hotel? I also went to the CBC archives to view the Book of Negroes Canadian miniseries to help prepare me for my visit to the slave castles.
Then I began sharing my hopes and dreams and this community here at Windsor Park United embraced our adventure, in faith, you shared your kindness and generosity through givings for soccer supplies which were shared both with Julius’ soccer club in Accra and some with the village. You will have seen the adult pinnies they wore and you should know how excited they were to get the purple and green ones that fit them perfectly. All the children here participated through Lent bringing their faith to life and reminding me of my dreams as a child. Again, you made a difference when you approached me with the idea of sharing the remaining funds from our previous South African project which the Bible Adventures program had begun so many years ago and allowing it to be added to the library fund for Gomoa Ayanful. They have now raised close to half of what is needed to build thanks to our congregation.
Just two days prior to leaving for Ghana, the terrorist attack in Brussels had our travel agent calling me relentlessly telling me to stay home as we were connecting through Brussels. She was incredibly anxious and made no less than 5 phone calls prior to the trip asking me not to go since it wasn’t a necessity. I don’t think she appreciated my determination. We did go with me saying a vehement, “we’re going!” just prior to taking off for the airport. Michelle sprained her ankle on the way, needing a wheelchair, my leg of the flight from Winnipeg to Toronto was 3 hours late, meaning that I would arrive an hour late after our London leg was due to depart. Michelle and I have never prayed so hard in our lives for God’s will to be done and for us to just trust that He would lead us. I have never been so grateful to travel with an airplane filled with teenagers on their way to London, because due to their large numbers, they held the flight for us in Toronto and Michelle and I were united, her with ice on her ankle and my ears ringing from teenagers screaming upon descent. In London, they made arrangements for us to fly directly to Accra since Brussels was still closed, however, on the return trip we passed through the area of the bombing as they were still undergoing repairs and we were happy to support the folks from Brussels in a stance against the fear that terrorism strikes in us all.
So what did I see, hear, taste, smell and touch…so many amazing things that I felt incredibly alive the entire two weeks.
We were treated to a special Pan African Youth Orchestra concert soon after arriving. You will have seen some photos of the foot drums that make use of both hands and feet and sound magnificent. All other instruments are original and handmade and children practice for hours every day after school. Some of the members spoke four and five languages and managed very well with English. I thought of Laura Steidl as I sat enchanted with such beautiful and wondrous dedication and love for music. Watch and listen to their talent and the treat we enjoyed.
I came to understand what fresh really means regarding food and how they treat animals so respectfully because they understand and are grateful to the life that is offered since everyone is responsible for gathering, buying their livestock and following the process of preparing for the meal each day from start to finish. Roosters sounded all the time and no they don’t just crow at dawn! Animals are free to roam everywhere and apparently they find their way home at night. I saw no cat fights, no dog fights, no animals fighting anywhere and wondered if climate and our enclosures have created the territorial behaviour we witness here with animals. I understood what it means to have a chicken stew which really means a taste of chicken but so little meat due to the leanness of the poultry.
I tasted banku and kenke, two forms of dough, one more sour than the other that is consumed with your right hand (not the left which was a challenge for me) and quite messy but somehow I didn’t care as the heat had us eating mostly just one meal/day in the evening so we were quite hungry at that point. I learned to love their very spicy peanut balls for breakfast called zoweh and their hard biscuits – akponor which we stopped on the side of the road to purchase from vendors carrying them so gracefully upon their heads.
I loved the okra soup that was prepared for me by Julius’ cousin’s second wife who agreed to sit with us only because her husband was away. I understood that while it is not my culture nor my belief system that they somehow made this arrangement work and all the children seemed loved. The children…Michelle and I went for a walk along the ocean with the children and took my favourite picture which is posted on my Facebook page, while wild horses galloped along the beach behind us.
I learned how to say medase and akpeh – Thank you in Ewe and Twi
I felt the coolness of a breeze under the thatch roofs and truly understood the usefulness of thatch under incredibly hot sun.
I had a chance to observe the man in the photo weave kente cloth into beautiful shawls overnight. I also understood how infrastructure is very different. When there is an opportunity to do business, they always say yes and then will work all night. However, power is overloaded and frequent lengthy outages are not conducive to good business practices and so one might order a dozen of something and only get four and that’s how it is.
We experienced a rented vehicle that had serious engine, hose and air conditioning issues so returned it and ended up with something worse, and so off we went to trade it back again. We drove great distances without air conditioning and dodging holes everywhere so that what would be a two hour drive here ended up being a seven hour drive to Klikor which was Julius’ father, Efo’s village. We visited his grave so Julius could say goodbye and as his grandfather was once a chief in the village, children gathered around and sang and danced for us quite spontaneously.
I saw lizards, and palm and coconut trees, horses, goats, chicken and cattle in the streets, brilliant colours everywhere in women’s clothing, in the paints used for their shanties, in the red, red earth and the beautiful lush greens of the jungle.
I slept through most of a torrential night in their rainy season which took down a courtyard wall right next to the room my cousin was sleeping in. I did awaken to hear men yelling and a bang and a ruckus but as all seemed well, I turned over and went back to sleep, unlike Michelle who didn’t sleep a wink.
We experienced car breakdowns frequently and learned the challenge of not being able to plan and the need to be flexible and innovative at all times…duct tape and cloth strips to tie duck feet that have come loose…not exactly fun times when claws and beak are aimed at your hands as you try to tie as fast as you can. Poor Julius came to understand how useless we city dwelling Canadians can be at rustling up food from scratch, real scratch.
The kicker though was the purchase of crabs again from the side of the road on our way up to Gomoa. They are woven onto palm leaves and held there or so we thought until Michelle and I had the experience of our lives as they came loose and began to claw their way up our legs and arms. I had no idea of my stamina in keeping my legs in the air while sweeping the seat with glasses for hours on end. Julius thought all this very amusing until a crab climbed up between his legs and fun over, the car was stopped and all crabs unceremoniously dumped into the trunk. Always hilarious until it happens to you!
I’m grateful Michelle never shared in detail the corruptness we would encounter as it was very unnerving to be stopped no less than 15 times on our way to and from Klikor and having to pay imaginary fines. Julius was both ashamed and angry with his country men’s behaviour and would get out and argue vociferously which seemed rather dangerous when they carried weapons but after the second or third time, I realized how it was all a game. Interesting how they only nabbed us a few times on the way back when I was in the front seat, was it because I was staring hard, was it because it was mostly women this time, was it because the holiday was finished? I guess I’ll never know.
At Busua Beach we stayed at an incredibly expensive resort with the gushing pipes, no discount mind you, and Ju went out to find the Ga, the fishermen, and we had a lobster feast and swam in the ocean which backfired slightly so I had to write about it:
Red Red Lobster
There we are in paradise,
Under the thatch, sand tween our toes,
We relax, feels so nice,
Waves entrance, no come and go.
We relax, waves entrance,
Time it pass,
Sun is hot, feels so nice,
Lulling us with its sass.
Lobster man make your deal,
Red hot pepper, mind your sting,
Feast us now, happy we feel,
Juju dance, then he sing.
Sun is hot, feel it sear,
Look out you fool, the burn is near,
Tonight we hurtin’, we touch the bed,
Lobster laughin’, now we is red!
The ocean in Accra however was so polluted with small black plastic bags they use for everything. I will never forget the image of so much garbage in the water, but once again there is no system for refuse. I will also always remember the need to shower with only a ladle from a bucket of water and couldn’t help but feel like we are wasting so much of our seemingly endless supply when I returned home.
As sad as I felt looking at the water, I had only to shift my gaze to see a 10 year old boy dancing with the waves following the tide in and out like a well-timed partner, dancing tirelessly all afternoon long. Life, joyfully lived, dancing happening everywhere along the sides of the road as happiness and sweat spilled from their pores. Fridays, I would hear uplifting music thinking there must be parties in the parks until we passed near enough that I saw a large bed with a woman who had passed away while her mourners both cried and danced at the wake.
It’s hard to explain the slave castles and the experience. Another woman from Amsterdam and I agreed that it must be like visiting Auschwitz. Read or watch the Book of Negroes to understand our history as Canadians and the burden and shame of our ancestors I felt touring as the only Caucasian in the group. I bought some books from their library and a book about Adinkra art which we saw everywhere carved in furniture and woven into cloth. Especially the gye nyame symbol meaning Except God, I fear none. I have kept the shell that merchants and beggars force upon you as you enter and leave the El Mina slave castle in Cape Coast as a reminder of the unsettling experience. I didn’t sleep that night…
One of our final destinations was the village which was my childhood dream come alive. We had been travelling with the crabs through heat and dust with no air and our water running low. We were sweaty, hot and tired and the car had broken down and was threatening again in the middle of the jungle. We arrived late, no food and no washrooms…yet an entire school of children who had waited for us for hours then sang and recited poetry for us; we exchanged ceremonies; prayed together in Christian faith; talked frankly about colonialism in Africa; and then later had a smudge ceremony with their chiefs and leaders, Michelle presenting them with gifts of tobacco and sage to honour our Canadian First Nations. They showed us the site where they have bricks waiting for the library project to be in a position to begin building. It was clearly the greatest poverty I had seen thus far and no food or drink was offered. We left parched, hungry and filled with joy and gratitude that we were able to complete our mission of sharing some supplies as token of our continued commitment to the project. I have never been touched and handled so much due to the colour of my skin and the feel of my hair. It was an experience beyond my wildest imaginative childhood dreams. We made it to a village where we found Coke to drink but my cousin became seriously ill for two days afterwards until we decided it was time to use the antibiotics and electrolyte powder she and I had brought with us. Fortunately, we were able to avoid a hospital trip.
We returned to Canada where I continued to imagine I heard roosters everywhere for quite some time. I compost with a vengeance now, and have increased efforts not to waste food. I love the African art from Kweku’s friend who obviously felt so sorry for me when I did not bargain with him that he gave me three extra free paintings. We don’t know what they’re painted on, maybe wallpaper, but I know I will never have anything else like it. I plan to make an outfit from some material I purchased and Patrick will receive a special kente cloth shawl for his first service in the fall. My experiences are serving me well in my new role as Community Liaison Worker because I share an understanding with our newcomers to Canada, in particular those from Africa and Asia. I know my life is forever changed and I will never regret saying “yes”. Thank you for listening, reading and sharing in my journey.