It Takes a Village

What better a way to spend Hannah’s birthday (she’s twenty-three!) than with a seven-hour bus ride from Kumasi to Dodowa. Complete with new packages from our families which we picked up in Accra (which brought Hannah birthday surprises and landed me a new pair of sorely-needed tennis shoes), we arrived in Dodowa.

After a long afternoon of getting ourselves settled back into Dodowa, it was time to have dinner with Charity and the family. Hannah, who was exhausted and hadn’t had much of a fun birthday (with the exception of a few new African dresses), lit up and had an amazing night. The kids were so sweet to her – even forming a line and singing ‘happy birthday,’ followed by a rousing chorus of ‘hip hip hooray!’ We had a great night and I think Hannah’s birthday was completely salvaged by some good food, close friends, and the energy of a crowd of Ghanaian children.

On top of everything, the family gave Hannah and I some really neat gifts. In honor of Hannah’s birthday, they had a whole bunch of clothing made with the same (gorgeous) fabric. Using the same seamstress who has created clothes for both Hannah and I, they were able to order us custom-made shirts and dresses (myself and Hannah, respectively) for us and a bunch of tiny matching shirts for the boys. Emma (pronounced ‘Eema’), Elvis, Hannah, and I were all matching. Hannah grinned from ear to ear. It was the perfect gift.

The next morning (Jan. 25), we had another nice meal with Charity and the family, during which Hannah showed off her new threads. We spent the rest of the day organizing data and getting some errands done. With all of the travel we’d been doing, it was hard to get some of the more mundane day-to-day tasks finished that were pretty important. Clean underwear is always a high-priority item.

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Sunday morning was an exciting time for us. Oti, who is quite religious (along with a large majority of Ghana), invited us to visit his church near Accra. Unlike some of the more quiet and reserved services you might expect, the morning was a chorus of shouting (sometimes in tongues), group singing, and sporadic shouts of praise from across the room. The energy was fantastic. We had an amazing time and I ended up getting into it a little too much – I think I embarrassed Hannah with my (very awkward and robotic) dancing.

At one point, however, Hannah just had to shout out to the lord, collapsing in a hot mess of tears and emotion. Ok, fine. It wasn’t exactly a religious outburst: Hannah’s foot was sitting underneath kneeling board (on the pew) when a large woman knelt to pray. Hannah shouted out, her cries dwarfed by the crowd of ecstatic worshipers. By the time I could figure out what was wrong (it was quite a confusing moment), I found myself trying to get this large woman off of Hannah’s ankle. Even with the help of another church leader, this woman – unaware that she was being supported by a small, fragile, size six foot – couldn’t be roused from the depths of her cathartic prayer. We finally had to simply live the pew, with her on it, and free Hannah ourselves.

Looking back on it, it was quite a funny moment – but at the time, I thought Hannah was going to rip someone’s head off! Luckily, though, Hannah wasn’t too embarrassed, since most of the church had no idea that their collective cries of divine thanks included Hannah’s cry for help.

After church, we headed to Gloria and Alex’s house. The couple, friends of Hannah’s from the Dodowa Health Research Center, were celebrating their anniversary and treated us to a delicious meal of kenkey – ground maize pounded into balls and wrapped in the husk. It tasted like a very tough ball of banku, but I enjoyed the flavored pepper that accompanied the dish. We inadvertently interrupted an improvised choir group, resulting in a neat serenade as we enjoyed our lunch. After a long afternoon of intermittent napping and fun conversation, we headed back to Dodowa.

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Monday (Jan. 27) was a nice, slow day. We were able to sit down with two great families and really get to know them. It took some time, in both cases, to get the settings just right, but we enjoyed the opportunity to build some nice, personal connections to the folks we met.

Our first stop was with a Nigerian man who married a Ghanaian woman. In a relationship where love knows no language, they both speak in English to communicate. Their adorable daughter, Sonya, was born with unilateral clubfoot and was in treatment incredibly quickly. She runs and plays like any other child and is really remarkable when one remembers that she was born with one foot pointing ninety-degrees away from the norm. She’s an only child, so she’s used to being treated like one of the grown-ups.

While I spoke to the parents, she was dying to be involved. We tried simply setting her up next to her folks with a microphone that led nowhere (so she would feel included), but she required just a bit more attention. Hannah ended up sitting her down and interviewing her one-on-one while I spoke to her parents. From the giggling I heard from both Hannah and Sonya, I can say that it sounded pretty successful. A quote that Hannah just couldn’t get over was the following: “I’m the princess (because my Auntie calls me ‘princess’). And the kingdom is my parents.”

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Our second stop was with a mother who has had two children born with clubfoot. Her son, Alexander, was terrified of his doctor (as most children are), and we just happened to have him along with us. While Joseph Acheampong isn’t a physician, he’s a skilled Ponseti practitioner who works with both CURE and FOCUS (another clubfoot-related organization in Ghana) as their quality assurance man-on-the-ground. He travels extensively throughout the country, ensuring that the Ponseti Method is being performed correctly by surgeons, technicians, and nurses. One of the many children he sees on a regular basis, though, is Alexander. And little Alex, was not thrilled to see the man who puts him in heavy plaster casts.

Struggling to get even a smile out of him, Hannah sprung into action, suggesting that Alex might smile if he were awarded a lollipop. After a cautious approach, he carefully took the candy from my hand and went at it. The ploy worked, and soon he was cooing and giggling at everything Hannah did. Without a doubt, though, the best thing we did to allow Alex to open up was to keep Joseph out of sight.

His sister, only six months old, has just graduated to the ‘bracing’ phase of her treatment. Each night, they both put on their boots and bars (with help from mom) and sleep themselves closer to plantar-grade feet.

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Our interview with their mother was really fascinating. I’m always interested in learning more about the feelings that mothers experience when they have more than one child with the special needs required of someone going through the Ponseti Method. To my surprise, she was very candid about the relief she experienced when she found that her daughter’s deformity was the same as her sons. In her mind, she told me, it was a condition for which she already knew treatment and could handle the challenges. She did talk about how much better she felt when her second child was diagnosed with clubfoot, though, and how much her awareness of the Ponseti Method kept her fears to a minimum. It was an insightful interview and I’m excited to review it again during the editing process.

After a nice dinner with Charity, we threw down our gear and slept – we had a big morning in Dzodze the next day and it was going to be even more exciting than either of us expected.

We woke up bright and early embarked on our day trip to Dzodze, which is about three and a half hours from Dodowa. We went with Andrews and Eddie, Charity’s sons. Andrews acted as our faithful driver and Eddie was a great translator – we needed someone who spoke the local ewe dialect for this particular region.

The road to Dzodze was somewhat expensive: there’s nothing quite like being pulled over by the police for the sole purpose of slipping them a nice little bonus. To avoid being held up for a long time as the officers ‘inspect the vehicle,’ the driver often just slips them a bit of pocket change and – just like that – you’re on your way. Interestingly enough, the officers taking our money with AK-47’s slung over their shoulders didn’t see the irony in warning us about armed robbers on our route.

We finally reached the clinic we’d be visiting in Dzodze, a small group of (at most) four patients. After a bit of filming and a couple of great shots later, we ended up taking one of the patients, Joyce, out to lunch and bringing her back home for a personal interview. Her rural upbringing piqued our interest and she had such a kind heart and a bright smile.

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Arriving at her home, we realized we were in a small village populated by people who lived off the beaten path, quite literally.

After Andrews nearly destroyed his car taking us over bumps and gutters that we hadn’t expected, we had ended up in a small village that wasn’t expecting us. Part of a protected tribe, they operate under their own laws and their own traditional societal ways. Next to an older man weaving away at homemade wicker baskets, a tribal elder sat and welcomed us to the village. She took a particular liking to Hannah, mysteriously tickling Hannah’s chin from time to time and giggling uncontrollably. We asked if we could take some photos and the whole crowd lit up, dancing and smiling as we took photo and video of the whole experience. They were so kind, bright and happy. It was one heck of a morning.

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Under the shade of a beautiful natural awning, we began our interview with at least 25 spectators. We got about half of the way into Joyce’s interview, in which we discussed her daughter Afi, before all hell broke loose.

After our shot had been interrupted by chickens and goats, we finally found the piece to continue our interview – but not for long. Two women, one drunk from a funeral (as one does) and the other unable to have children, broke out into a sporadic and eventful argument. The second, telling the loud drunk to ‘shut up,’ was angrily insulted by the inebriated woman for her ‘barren-ness.’ The argument turned physical and soon the drunk woman, now having been called promiscuous by the other, threatened her counterpart with a large stick used to pound fufu.

The village exploded as the sober woman brought up painfully sore subjects and took some cheap shots at the other. After they nearly knocked over my camera and gave us all quite a scare, the two women (the drunk one partially undressed and spitting) went their separate ways and we struggled to finish up our interview with Joyce. At the end, we were interrupted yet again as the sober woman shouted out, to the village’s shock, that she would be consulting the oracle that evening: asking the spiritual leader if death was an appropriate punishment for her drunken rival. If the drunk woman ended up dead (by whatever circumstances) after an affirmative response from the oracle, it would be legally accepted. Tribal laws are harsh, but protected by the Ghanaian government in an effort to allow the groups to remain independent.

It was quite the scene and very different from how our time with the villagers began: dancing, taking photos, and laughing with them. Eddie, our translator, told us that he thought the fight broke out because the two women were jealous of the attention we gave to Joyce – they wanted their own bit of attention and, sure enough, they got it. It was amazing how the shy and sweet Joyce turned her child’s condition, with our presence, into something the women in the village found unique and special. We got out of there without much fanfare and headed to our second interview of the day.

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Earlier at the clinic, we had – completely by chance – run into a woman with an untreated case of bilateral clubfoot. She had scars from years of walking on her knees.

Charlotte, a bright woman with an infectious smile, was waiting for us nearby and we met with her briefly. She was so sweet, but was very reluctant to answer our questions once we sat down for the interview. I suspect that her family, all present, put an awkward pressure on her to say or do certain things – and they flat out refused to give us a private moment with Charlotte. In that moment, we were both disappointed that her family had allowed us to come out of their own curiosity, but hadn’t allowed us to really have the privacy with Charlotte that she clearly needed to answer honestly about her struggle.

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We enjoyed a late-night dinner on our way home (during which we encountered more ‘helpful’ police officers who lightened our wallets with a smile). It had been a long day – and it was a wild time that we couldn’t have seen coming!

Since it was Emma’s birthday, we decided to throw him our own birthday party. We had missed his actual birthday, since we had such a late night prior, so we decided to really go all out. Complete with ice cream, candies, and birthday hats, we set up a party in just a few minutes with the help of all of the other children. While I hung out with him for a few minutes, Hannah ended up coaching all of the kids as they blew up balloons, set out the party hats, and laid out birthday noise-makers.

Of course, the noisemakers didn’t last long as simple toys: I made the mistake of poking Hannah in the ear with the noisemaker as a joke – but that turned into all of the kids literally attacking me for the next twenty minutes. While they would never jump all over Hannah (Ok, they would, but not as a punching bag), they have no problem treating me like a sack of potatoes. And Hannah loves to watch them have at me!

As is Ghanaian tradition (we learned), Emma was doused in cold water by the whole crew and he took it well. We ended up getting a ton of great photos and having a great night with all of the kids.

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-Zach

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3 comments on “It Takes a Village
  1. Dana and Scott Gorelick says:

    Another great post! Your journey certainly included some amazing, poignant and surprising experiences! We are so very proud of the two of you!

  2. Hannah's dad says:

    Wow! The description of your adventures is riveting. Great photographs as well!!

  3. Ann Denny says:

    That was so very interesting. So glad to be able to read the new blog.

    Ann

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