In 2010 I was a student at the University of Manitoba, Environmental Design program studying Landscape Architecture and I had the privilege to be chosen for the Service Learning in the Global Community Program. In this design-build course we travelled to Damongo, Ghana to build a new space and expand the possibilities at St. Mary's boarding house for girls sponsored to attend school by Tools for Schools Africa Foundation. This was such a surreal experience for me and I was so honoured to be able to experience the culture, learn from everyone we met and expand my understanding of design and how we can create a better world together.
For this project I was one of nine students from the University of Manitoba accompanied by lead instructor Kelly Beaverford as well as additional staff and documentary filmmaker Michael Hersrud who captured video content to give you a deeper look into our experience. The final documentary film he created is available for free on Vimeo in 2 parts (approximately 45 minutes each) and I've linked both parts below.
Below I will attach some excerpts of notebook journaling I did while on the trip as well as some photos from the experience.
May 6, 2010
We got in last night at about 7:30pm Ghana time, 2:30am Winnipeg time. Couldn't sleep much on the plane so it was just a long and uncomfortable ride. Saw some of Accra today, our first stop was to use the internet to touch base with home then we exchanged our currency. We went to visit Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park for the first Prime Minister of Ghana. Learned a lot about him and his influence on the country, his philosophy "move forward forever, move backwards never." He brought the Ghanian people to independence but was overthrown by some of the people because they believed him to be a dictator. After that he went to be co-president in Guinea. He died in 1972 and his body was buried in Guinea. In 1992 his body was dug up and brought back to Ghana and buried in a memorial. The memorial is supposed to resemble the handle of a sword pointed down representing peace (as opposed to pointed up representing war). Egyptian influence was brought into the structure because Kwame married an Egyptian woman. It was a political marriage hoping to express the encouragement for Africa to unite. She requested to be buried by her husband, she died in 2007 and she is now buried in the memorial along with Kwame. We went to the market, it was an interesting experience, it is impossible to get away from people forcefully trying to sell you things. I did get to drum a bit though. Then we stopped at Accra mall for some lunch and to look around (found out they have an Apple store). Then went to pick up the rest of our party at the Airport which looks different in the daylight. We went to see the ocean. After turning down the merchants we got some time to just hang out on the beach. It was nice, I'm dealing with the heat & humidity ok. I think. It. is very warm and I've been sweating a lot and collecting moisture from the air. I think I will be able to cope with it though. It's been crazy so far and tomorrow we take our flight out to Tamale, getting up at 3:30am!
May 7, 2010
6AM - Flight delay until 11:15
Yesterday we went to see the custom made coffins unique to Ghana. They were kind of crazy. I started to wonder what type of coffin I would be buried in... macbook pro, camera, elephant, boat, etc... I don't know.
I started feeling like I had no idea what I was doing and like everything I was doing was wrong but I think that the next time I face certain situations I will feel better about my responses and being here will come more naturally.
8PM Today was a long day. I don't really know what to make of it. A lot of waiting around for our flight and then a long road trip here but we made it. Laz seems great, so does Claudious. I guess being here just gets you to think about things differently. On one side I don't like when people push you to buy things on the street but that's how they feed their families. I've been thinking today that everyone hates us and thinks we just don't want to give them any money but I am staying positive because I know we are doing something good here. We went to visit the job site today, it was quite large and I am really hoping that we can be done in time! I know we will do whatever we can rain or shine but I would be so happy to complete this before we leave. This area is Ghana is so beautiful and the place we will be staying for the next month is incredible! Everything here is beautiful, the land, the trees, the building we are in! The local housing is developing but their homes don't look like much driving by, I hope to explore further.
May 8, 2010
First day at the jobsite! I want to leave here knowing some Degari and with a tan so dark I don't need to use sunscreen. And maybe the ability to work outside in this heat.
I think I remember this right... maybe (spelled based on sounds)
[Degari - ISMARAD - good evening (to one), YASMARI - good evening (to group)]
I will keep learning and try to remember these things properly. Hopefully I can, that would be great, I am so excited to try and learn a language here.
The first day of work was a bit rough, I feel bad that we couldn't work harder but I know it takes time. The days will get better and hopefully we can finish the project before we go home.
High point(s) of the day:
(1) When Thomas told me that I was improving at applying mortar.
(2) Using the pick-axe.
Low point of the day:
Towards the end of the day when I was hot, tired and was asking a couple of people if they needed help without any luck and just felt bad for standing around.
Today was overall a good day. The food has been great so far, ate the most amazing pineapple at dinner tonight. The bread is also great. I can't wait to learn more, I would love to have a conversation in Degari before I leave. I love that I am here but I am just afraid that we might not make much of a difference to the project. I know though that as we keep moving forward we will only get better at the jobs we are learning.
May 12, 2010
Degari (spelled based on sounds):
Katu ma bisou? - How are you?
Zoga ting apo - I ran to town
Who your ē? - What is your name?
En your é la _________ (name) - response
Zinné - today
Beau - tomorrow
Beau tibé - tomorrow next
Learned a lot today, got some more Degari to practice. Thomas taught us about a native tree called TECK (pronounced T-I-C-K). The wood is used for street lamps, telephone poles & furniture. You can grow them on your land but if you want to sell them you have to sell them to the government. If you are caught cutting one you go to jail for 5 years (5 years for each tree if you cut many). He also showed us that the leaves contain a red ink used for printing. Refined my skills tieing rebar today, I'm not really fast yet though and I don't think digging is good for me. I am happy because I think today was a good day for bonding with all the workers. We also met some young boys who wanted to write to us back in Canada. I am hoping that by the time we leave we will have many pen pals from the construction site and the community. I also found out that it is Thomas's birthday a few days after we leave (I will have to get the exact date) but I think we should have a birthday party for him.
Send your child to school or feed your family, get medical attention or buy clothing for your family?
Very real decisions that people have to make everyday. I can't imagine having to be faced with such a problem. In North America I have the ability to take out a loan or even just put some money away in savings if I am stuck and cannot pay for these things. Somehow humans survive, families are poor but they live any way they can. I wish I could help everyone go to school AND eat, but I can't. It has made me seriously reflect on my own culture. All of my privileges have been placed in a new perspective. When you are face to face with people who have to choose between their needs you feel pretty lucky to have all of yours met plus more.
June 1, 2010
Daagari (spelled by sounds):
Zongo manyé couree (beginning of a proverb)
MARABA - gonja
AKWAABA - akan
SEDAZUE - hawuza
ZAARE - frafra
WEYZEW - euce
WABUYAWI - daagari
Today the paint was delayed because of a terrible accident but the afteroon is rained and we could not have done any painting anyway. Went to the seamstress today to get measured for my dresses that she is making. Went for a ride with Peter on his motor bike. It was a bit scary. I kept feeling like I was going to tip over. But Peter told me to trust him and he would not let me die. I lived, so I guess he was right.
On one of our days off we took a trip to Mole National Park in hopes to see some elephants. Unfortunately the day that we went a storm was rolling in and we didn't get much time in the park. We also didn't see much but the landscape we so beautiful.
It was an honour to be working and learning alongside such an amazing group of people. And getting to know the girls attending school and building friendships was so rewarding. Design principles, construction techniques and the overall pacing of life is so different in Ghana. Our work site worked when we could.. but when items were delayed the overall attitude was "it'll get here when it gets here." Nothing like the face pace of working on completing projects as fast as possible here in Canada. Each and every brick was moulded by hand and set to dry before being stacked and used in construction.
We went to visit a class of younger students in their school room. They sang for us and we got to see where they learn.
Our chef Charity was kind enough to let me help with a dinner and taught me how she makes Fufu. She made it with Cassava and served it with chicken stew. It is eaten with your hands.
We had the opportunity to visit another construction site for a future cathedral. They had a few more pieces of equipment here to help with construction but still each an every brick was made by hand on site. It's absolutely incredible to witness this when you know just how much work goes into it.
June 3 & 4
Part of it doesn't seem real. Partially because the building is not done and in part because I don't feel like I had enough time with my new friends.
On our last night in Damongo Claudious gifted us traditional robes and then we went over to the boarding house where we were visited by a team of drummers and spent the evening dancing with all of our friends and the girls living at the boarding house.
From Damongo we started our road trip back to Accra. But we made a couple of stops along the coast on our way. We took a few days to relax and enjoy Ghana together as well as learn even more about the dark history of the slave trade. We toured both Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle.
We stayed in Elmina at One Africa Guest House. And on one of our final mornings I was woken up way earlier than I would have liked by the sun coming through the one single crack in the blinds. I remember crawling out of bed so angry (mornings are not my favourite) and wanting to close the curtain and go back to sleep. But as soon as I reached for the curtain I got a look outside and dang it.. it was the most beautiful sunrise I could hope for. So of course I had to grab my camera and head outside to go and take some photos and I'm so glad I did!
Here are a few more shots collected from others.
All great stories start somewhere, and I can't wait to be a part of yours!
So reach out and say hi!