A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Visiting Salomey in Her Village

If you have not read my previous post on Salomey, I will recap some of the background. I have been sponsoring Salomey, a girl of 15, and exchanging letters with her for over 6 years through Plan International, an organization that supports community development through child sponsorship. My monthly membership fee of $29 goes to the village to build schools, dig wells, and provide health and immunization services. Plan allows in-person visits and graciously picked us up in Kokrobite to chaperone us to Salomey’s village (a two hour journey) for the day.

In a little village called Ahentia outside the town Badjiase in the Central Region, is Salomey’s family home. A family home is a walled compound or group of nearby houses shared by the extended family from children to parents to grandparents. Everyone in the family grows up together and grandmothers take a very active roll in childrearing so you often see small children swaddled to their backs with decorative cloths, leaving their hands free to work. The children are very well behaved here, probably because they grow up never often apart from the warmth of mother or grandmother, though I hear sometimes the fabric loosens unexpectedly and the child falls head first to the ground. Future psychological issues aside, tt seems ingenious.

I saw Salomey sneaking a peek at us from behind the house as we got out of the car. She was shy and nervous, just like us, for our long awaited meeting. We smiled and hugged briefly and sat in white plastic patio chairs in a circle, trying to steal a little shade from the sun in the thatch overhang of the roof. It seemed like her whole family was in attendance: her mother Vivienne, older and younger sisters, grandmother with young baby cousin on her back, grandfather, uncle and various other cousins. Her father is not a part of the village, leaving mom and kids several years back in what I surmised as a bitter divorce.

The first few moments were a little awkward as we were all warming to each other. Salomey had written some questions for me. The first was, “How is your mother?” I had sent her a picture of me and my mom that she proudly showed to me. It appeared worn around the edges, like it was taken out and looked at many times over the years. As I talked about my mother, I knew she had a similar bond with her own and this was something we shared. Daughters and mothers, all over the world. She also asked “What color is the sand in America?” which was heartbreaking in its simplicity, as if America could have been on the moon or another planet altogether.

She was wearing the dress from the fabric and materials I sent her once and I got the full story. Her aunt, a seamstress, sewed it for her. When she was younger, she looked up to her aunt and naturally it seemed a good profession for a young woman. But as she has gotten a few years older her ambition is to become a nurse. How noble I thought. Or more importantly, how useful. She would be in demand in her own village or anywhere in Ghana she chose. In a place where you see deliberate knife scars on the faces of people who were “treated” for illness as a child (anything from convulsions, measels, or pneumonia) you know that modern medicine is in dire need.

She had just finished junior high school and was awaiting her exam scores. If her marks are high enough, she will receive a scholarship through Plan to high school for three more years. I got a few differing numbers on how many receive scholarships but it sounds pretty competitive. She thought she did well, her favorite subject being English, and if her near perfect grammar is any indication, she may just get one! After high school, she will also need to go on to vocational training in nursing for a number of years. Here, the competition is really fierce to get a free ride and few people I spoke to sounded hopeful that it could happen, maybe for fear of having too high of hopes. Without a scholarship school fees can be over 100 cedi/term or $70. This doesn’t sound like much but considering a lot of families live with less than that per month, its serious money to them, and the reason so many youths never make it to high school or beyond.

We presented the family with our gifts. Plan has rules over what we could bring. Nothing too expensive, no money, and we couldn’t exchange phone numbers or addresses. These are all things meant to keep confidentiality for the child and harmony within the village. We asked some friends about traditional gifts when you are invited to a Ghanaian home, so we brought a large burlap sack of rice and liter of cooking oil for Salomey’s mother, which we brought in Ron’s shoulder bag (that he traded for a backpack in Paris) and then gave it to Salomey as more of an afterthought. She was so happy to receive it, although her real gift was a pair of gold flower earrings with cubic zirconia centers I bought at Macy’s, that I suddenly felt bad we gave her an obviously used bag. She didn’t seem to notice or care and put it on to model for her family and the others in the community that wandered over to say hello. We thought we would see a lot of children so we brought some Tom-Tom candies but ended up passing them around to the group we had around us.

The family asked if we wanted a coconut to drink and I jumped at the chance, never having tried a fresh one right off the tree before. Salomey hacked open coconuts with a giant curved tip sword like she had probably done it a thousand times before. More kids with sharp instruments, I thought. They offered us a straw, but the traditional way is to sip it from the shell, a nature made cup. The milk was clear and would have been sweet and delicious if not for the licorice candy still in my mouth, ruining the taste.

Then it was time to tour the village. We met the chief, Nai Whyette who presided over the village. He was dressed in a traditional gown with the coolest sandals I’ve ever seen, all black lacquered and shiny. As protocol dictates we sat in a circle and did two rounds of introductions. First us, the guests, shaking their hands in a counterclockwise order and then sitting. Then the chief and other men (including Salomey’s uncle and grandfather who accompanied us) got up and shook all of our hands similarly before sitting down. The chief then asked our mission, which was to be permitted to visit the village and spend time with Salomey and her family. The chief wished us well and thanked us for our donations to the community through Plan. Then Ron rose and handed him our traditional offering, a bottle of schnapps aptly labeled “for kings” that looked more expensive than it was (at 5 cedi or $3.50) in a sealed box. He was very pleased and even went so far as to say he hoped we would return to the village again and that he would give us land to build on!

Next we visited a nearby elementary school that Plan built. We met the teachers and toured the library which housed at most 100 books, but in which they were quite proud. You aren’t allowed to check out the books like our libraries but if you bring your own chair you can read any available book during library hours. We walked the grounds, and hiked a ways behind the school to a watermelon garden planted that season by the children. Once harvest comes, they sell the watermelon’s and the proceeds are fed back in to the school.

Passing back by the school we were greeted by the children. All the smiling little faces peering out from the windows looking at the obruni, maybe for the first time. A wave gets a hundred enthusiastic returns. We even got to go inside a kindergarten class and listen to their lessons made from songs and rhythmic clapping between the teacher and students. Dance and musical talents are cultivated early and are a way of life not a mere elective.

We returned to Salomey’s family house and however difficult, now was the time for goodbyes. We had Plan translate to the family our thanks for having us to their home and that we wanted to remain in touch through letters, even after Salomey turns 18 and is no longer eligible for Plan. I told Vivienne to keep her safe and healthy. She sent us off with a dozen coconuts and Salomey followed us to the car for a long goodbye, two hugs, and nearly tears at our departure. It may be the only time I ever see her (though I hope not) so the enormity of our visit was felt by us all. Standing on a dusty road across from the mud hut she calls her home in that bright flower print dress, she beamed one last smile at us.

It struck me as we were leaving just how poor her family lived. They didn’t have anything to speak of and I‘m sure they were living hand to mouth, the grandmother rearing chickens, and the mother selling fried cassava snacks. It’s a hard life, without too many opportunities knocking on your door. In some cases, not even a door to knock on. Therefore no way out. I have a secret I can’t share with you here for all the world to see. But I promise you that Salomey will be going to school, as she had promised me under her breath and in her eyes when we departed. And someday, she’ll even become a nurse and heal the sick in her village and be respected by her community as an educated and caring woman that I know she will be. She’s the only child I have (however remotely it may be) and I care for her future as deeply as any children I hope to have myself.


emiko October 3, 2009 at 6:14 PM  

This is so special, Alison!
I am so touched by your thoughts & comments on your visit with Salomey and her family!

Nice photos, Ronnie - captures the spirit!

Anonymous October 4, 2009 at 6:10 AM  

I love your blog! You should really consider writing a book when you are finished your travels! I am so happy that you got to meet your sponsor child...mine is from Chad, and I am afraid I won't meet with her for awhile if at all.

Alison October 10, 2009 at 12:15 PM  

It was really an amazing thing - I still don't quite believe I was there!

I would love to write a book, its funny that I never knew how much I enjoyed writing until this trip. Just need a publisher... :)

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