A volunteer trip to teach art workshops with the amazing Cross Cultural Collaborative, an organization that works with youth in Nungua, Ghana to make paper crafts to fund their school tuition and costs. I worked with the youth to learn screenprinting, abstract and expressive painting, and photography.
Ben reaches over and grabs my arm. “Stop for a minute. I would like to talk to you.” Busily scurrying to pack my bags for an evening departure, I settle into the wicker chair across from him. “As you know, my mother is 98. On the day Aba came to visit, she was hoping to be able to meet you too. She wanted to extend you into her African family.” He opens a small plastic bag and pulls out 3 strands of beads. Having been to the bead village with Ben, I know that these are the ancient beads that the Africans cherish. They cannot to this day replicate the process they used to make them, nor can they locate the materials. He tells me that the blue ones must be worn by my future husband when we are in the process of naming our first born, that this is custom. The beads, he explains, are a way of connecting one person to another. That now, I am part of their family. I am overwhelmed and speechless. The generosity and open arms of his elderly mother touch me deeply though I have never me her.
It is hard to know where to begin in an attempt to describe a trip to Ghana. There is such a complex mixture of emotions that accompany arrival , residing, and departing. The openness, patience, and work ethic of the people are what lingers with me most. They welcome you with open arms into the family of Ghana. Nowhere have I seen men, women, and children work so hard. Four men hold up a fishing ship with their backs as the move it toward the sea. Women pound plantains for hours, wiping their sweat with a hankerchief. Children, 5, and 6 stand on the side of the road from dawn till dusk, carrying bags of water on their heads to sell to travelers.
Time there slows. Nothing can be done quickly or easily. You bathe with a bucket of water when the city's pipes are dry. The temperature remains hot, the sun scorching, blending day with night. Sometimes 4 or more live in a one-room home, so sleep is no longer tied with night. People sleep everywhere. They sleep in the city market where the women sell goods, and even infants sleep on boards laid on the pavement; mini stiff stretchers.
But everywhere, you hear young children giggling and singing. While they work, they sing and dance. As the harshness of the sun beats on their backs and the sweat coats their faces, there is a breeze of happiness here. There is family, family that does not split, tribal loyalty that remains steadfast today, and a spirit of life that I have never seen.
We walk by the school on our way to the market. The echoes of children repeating the teacher fill the humid air. They have arrived at 6 and will be there until 3. 62 children to a teacher. No textbooks, no questions, no group work, no problem solving. Lecture, repeat, write. If they can afford to reach senior high school they can choose art as an elective. Art. Lectured. There are no supplies provided. The teacher tells you how to paint, but you don’t paint. You learn how art is made, theoretically. You learn to draw what you see, exactly. The closer to realism, the better. So though the children who attend school are luckier than the majority whose parents cannot afford the tuition, the knowledge is so rigid that they emerge with few life skills. They do not know how to collaborate, to think creatively, to ask questions, or to push boundaries. If they push boundaries, they are caned.
School lets out and some of the children come to Aba House at the Cross Cultural Collaborative. They are quiet and pensive, and as I joke with them they slowly warm up and realize there is safety. I offer a piece of paper to draw and the little eyes light up and a smile emerges. “Would you like to paint today?” I ask. “Do you have paint?” they squeal. “Yes!” I exclaim and their smiles grow bigger. Some look down in shyness. I give them art books to look at. The books have reference pictures and a few books are on technique. They are drawn to the “ How to Draw Cartoons” book and soon there is a gathering around it. They are silent. Their pencils move slowly and articulately, capturing every stroke of the author’s hand. I look down at a young girl’s paper. She is drawing a horse, step by step, but instead of adding each step to the next, layering them upon each other to create the outlined horse, she draws them sequentially, vertically, one after another, exactly like the book. Each step is labeled with the coordinating letters, A,B, C, D. The others are drawing vigorously and I look curiously at their results. Each is identical to the book. I realize, encouraging creativity is going to be a challenge.
What I come to see over the next 2 ½ weeks is that the ideas of abstract and interpretation are simply not concepts that live here. Things are done for necessity, or they are done to avoid difference. Boats are carved painstakingly from a single piece of wood and are pushed out of the forest to the ocean, and baskets are tediously woven to carry, not out of desire but out of necessity. There is little purpose or desire for the abstract in a culture that is living to survive. There is purpose in their craft, and that is the object.
I ask Solomon, a 6 year old, what color he would like to make his drawing, and he grins uneasily at the thought of a choice. “ I don’t know,” he replies. Soon I am helping Bernard prepare his screen for a silkscreen, and as I guide him how to pull the squeegee across, he says, “ I wish you were my mother.” What I learn quickly from the children, Aba, and others, is that children are valued here as little working bodies. They are often not valued as individuals who can grow, think, challenge, and experience. So what you find is a culture that seems stuck in time, replicating itself with little progress, but full of love, connection, and familiarity.
By the end of my stay, I see small changes in some of the children and this is enough to satisfy me greatly. I am able to joke with them, and and I get a glimpse of what they fear and desire. I help them design t-shirts and encourage their uniqueness. I trust them and give them a camera and tell them to go out into the yard and take pictures of whatever they think is beautiful. Aba has set the groundwork here for a safe house where people of all cultures can come together to share their skills and learn from each other. The volunteers, community members, and children have a unique opportunity here at Aba House to do exactly what Ghanain education ignores. Create. Play. Think. It was delightful to be a part of that. One cannot seemingly return from such an experience without a great sense of gratitude and deeper understanding of the world. One realizes how much power one has to make change, and that helping one person to live a more fulfilling life is enough.