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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Promise Kept: Part 2

Imagine being left out of the gift giving! You can understand some of these looks.
For the next part of our adventure I think it might help you to imagine being a group of just five people bringing in goods for over 250 children (onlooking/ supervising adults made the number closer to 300+ people.) These gifts weren't exactly extravagant or expensive, in fact, to most people in the world they were really sort of basic: soccer balls, a warm meal of chicken and rice, a bottle of soda, pens & notebooks, and candy for the little kids.

But the cool thing about these gifts is that to the children we visited they were rare and extremely hard to come by.  So, the scarcity of these items and the response by the kids (and the adults) turned out to be a tricky combination of gratitude and joy mixed with fear of being left out and maybe a dash of greed.

We tried to organize the kids into groups (in addition to a meal and soda for all we put the boys in a line for soccer balls, girls in a line for school supplies, and little ones in a line for some fruit snacks and DumDum suckers) to make the distribution process efficient but you can only have as much efficiency as the kids will allow.  Some of the older boys who earnestly volunteered to help Marissa and Kylie (see last photos at bottom) with the tasks ended up shooing away some of the kids when it wasn't their turn or barking at them to keep them in line.  I must say that for the most part, at least at first, the kids complied and it was fairly orderly.

On my previous visit we had encountered a mentally ill woman who didn't understand that the gifts were for the kids and made a bit of ruckus so I was on the lookout for her and advised the girls to keep their distance.  Well, this time she was a bit more lively as we politely tried to ignore her and focus on the kids.  She didn't like that and actually picked up a large rock and acted like she was going to throw it or come at us.  I instinctively pushed myself between her and my girls and then turned my back to her so that if she was going to attack us a) the girls wouldn't be hit, and b) I would get hit in the back and not the front.  I knew she would only have one shot and it probably wouldn't hurt that badly but I was also trying to avoid the confrontation as I thought a wrestling match between a mentally ill village woman and a big white American man would sort of put an unwelcome mark on the day's effort.  Thankfully she backed down and went her way without incident.  However, it did shake us up slightly and I tucked it into the "Don't tell Mom" mental envelope (until now) and got back to work.

One additional complication was that on this day there was a certain group of the village kids who were all dressed up for pictures because they had been sponsored by an international charity group called Compassion.  This group's village representative saw that we were there to give gifts and informed us that the Compassion kids didn't need anything and should be excluded from the festivities.  It appeared that we had enough for these kids too (30 kids?) but this individual took a hard line and we followed suit.  But the ironically-named Compassion kids just had to linger and watch these other kids get things and frankly the girls and I felt badly about it.  But my attitude was: "When in Rome...don't make waves."  Or however that saying goes.

However, I had almost forgotten who I had brought with me: my big-hearted, compassionate 17 year-old daughter, Marissa.  In all the commotion of passing out gifts, keeping an eye on my girls, and trying to take pictures I looked up and saw Marissa crying hard.  I initially panicked having no idea why she was crying (was the mentally ill woman back?!) and hurried over to find out what was wrong.

This one little girl (white dress below) was beside herself that she didn't get anything and started crying.  Marissa saw this little girl and felt so sorry for her.  This little girl's tears on top of Marissa's tender feelings while helping so many kids that had nothing was too much for her and she "lost it."  This caused Kylie to cry as well.  Wanting to help someone so much and being told you can't was just too much, and I understood.  So, my dear Marissa asked me if it was OK to give her a soda and I said: Yes!

The photos below tell the rest of the story...

Marissa can't stand the tears of one little left-out girl.
Disobeying instructions, Marissa makes sure this little girl gets a soda anyway.  Look at those tears!
All better now.
Can I just interject a little fatherly note here?  How rewarding for me to see my 17 year-old daughter have her heart touched in this way!  Secretly, or maybe not so secretly, I had hoped for this type of unforgettable experience that would occur for both of my girls, but especially my teenage daughter about to head out into the world as an adult.  She has had a materially abundant life, like nearly every other American teenager I know, but I believe that abundance of the heart and spirit is what lasts and helps shape these kids for future greatness and peace in this life.  Here in the USA we have SO much.  But maybe we have so much that we sometimes (often?) lack the richness of the heart that can only come from the tears of a child, a $0.50 bottle of soda, and a hug and smile that bond two people from very different worlds.

So, we continued on with the effort until we had distributed the balls and gifts.  Here are a few pictures of the sweet children who received the various gifts we gave out that day.

Holding his own box of chicken and rice.

Here are some of the boys who received balls posing with Kylie for photos we gave to the donors of these balls.  Some seemed to enjoy the moment more than others.


Marissa with one of the few girls who actually got
a ball.  Culturally the boys got the balls and the
girls got school supplies.  Maybe next time we will focus more on the girls playing soccer.

As the day moved along the children, like any children will do, got a bit restless holding their food and wondering what else these white people may have brought to them.  The older boys started to ask for things on the sly in hushed voices.  "Mister--I need a ball.  What about shoes?  Do you have any shoes?"  This is when the day started getting harder.  Saying "no" is very difficult on the spot.  

I had told the girls beforehand that we would never be able to meet the need in this one day and would have to leave some of the kids wanting and that it would be hard.  But each of us had one or two kids we connected with in the short time we were there and naturally wanted to do something more for them.  The problem was that we were completely exposed in the middle of the large crowd and could barely make it back to the car, let alone open it and discreetly hand something special to just one child. 
I should have known better but the fatigue, the heat, the commotion, and my heartstrings all combined to make me at least attempt to try and give away all we had left in a fair and calm way.  What else was I going to do with the items we brought?!  Kylie had brought an old pair of goalie gloves and a personal jersey or two and directed me to give them to certain kids.  I did all I could do distract the other kids but before I knew it I was literally surrounded by at least 40-50 kids in front of the car door.  I tried my best to give the extra gifts to the intended recipients but was literally "mobbed" by these kids.  I used my height to hold the items out of reach but as soon as I moved to hand it to the child pairs and pairs of hands started grabbing me to the point that my hands actually got scratched and I almost fell down.  I was not at all prepared for that sort of pushing and grabbing so handed off the goods and made my way out of the crowd for some fresh air.  Thankfully the girls weren't mobbed like that.

I was disappointed by this behavior but wrote if off to my lack of expertise in doing this sort of gift-giving and to the thinking these kids must have had in their heads: "We rarely get visitors with such unusual and rare things that I just have to get something out of this golden opportunity!"  I don't really blame the kids but will be smarter next time in the logistics of generosity.

One quick funny story.  Due to the heat we certainly were dancing a bit with dehydration but after none of us having had to empty the bladder all day that urge snuck up on all of us and I asked someone for assistance in finding a toilet or somewhere to take care of business.  So, this young man escorted me, with the girls close behind, about 30 yards from the big group to a VERY exposed spot one foot off the road.  I sort of looked at him, looked around, looked at him again, looked at my girls, then moved off the road to a tree about 5-10 yards for a little privacy, but still in view of at least 20-30 seemingly disinterested villagers.  Talk about stage fright!!

The girls returning from the bush-room, er "bath-room."
While I was trying to take care of business our escort turned to the girls and pointed to "my spot."  The girls made an expression like "You have GOT to be kidding me!"  He laughed at them and then took them to more discrete location.  Marissa was a bit more committed to the effort than was Kylie and was able to find some semi-private relief.  Kylie actually declined the opportunity which I found quite shocking given my knowledge of her usually small or weak-ish bladder.  I am not sure when she actually did go  but I think she didn't take care of things until that night back in Accra.  At 12 hours she may have set some sort of personal, if not world, record for "holding it."  Yikes!

Group shot towards the end of the visit.  Smiles all around!
Some of the girls' main helpers for the day. Sad to see us go
(and by "us" I mean the girls.)
Thanks to good thinking and a generous effort made by Kylie's soccer coach's wife, Katie Hollingsworth, we were able to collect and deliver over 60 sets of reversible soccer jerseys for the village to use for team games.  These jerseys for the new Northern Utah United Soccer League would have otherwise gone unused.  So glad to know they are being used right now by aspiring soccer greats in this village in Ghana.

Our host, Eric, explaining how the jerseys work
and asking the village chief to be sure they are
shared and put to the best use.
Kylie handing over one set of 15 jerseys to the village
councilman already wearing a Save-A-Thon For Africa T-shirt.

See you next time guys!

As the day grew dark we got back into the car, suddenly much more spacious, and headed for home.  Traffic wasn't quite as bad on the way back so we made it "home" in about 2 hours.  We were hungry and hit good ol' KFC for some chicken and Coke.  Then off to bed to prepare for the next amazing day in an entirely different village and another amazing experience.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Day 2: A Promise Kept

So with the day essentially starting in the wee hours of the morning I wasn't exactly sure what to expect and I knew the girls really had no idea.  Yes, they knew this was the day we were going to the village, hopefully find Borges there and meet hundreds of other children.  But, as with some things in life like the birth of a child, a wedding, your first job, etc. you just can't be fully prepared for an experience with words alone.  I was anxious for the day and frankly it started to feel surreal.

As I was coming out of my awful night's sleep I began to notice our air conditioner started to work less effectively and was making a strange noise.  This was followed by a drip-drip-drip sound.  Through my groggy morning eyes I bolted awake as I realized that the air conditioner was leaking water on the bedside table on which I had placed the laptop with which I am writing now.

Actually it was leaking a steady stream of dirty A/C water on my laptop which was on the bedside table.  Lovely! Thankfully my awesome brother had given me a laptop case made by Incase (brilliantly yet sincerely placed promotion here) months earlier and it protected my laptop from what would have been an otherwise complete disaster.  (For the record I was then able to leverage this damage into a $50 discount on the price we paid for our room there.  They weren't too happy with my request but I was happy to introduce them to a higher level of customer service than perhaps they were quite ready for. :-)

Anyway, after we left the Erata Hotel we moved our stuff and the 6 full duffle bags of balls and goodies for the kids to the temple about 20 minutes away--traffic was light since it was early morning.  Once we settled in the girls took a nap while we waited for Eric and Vincent (our driver) to re-pack the car with the 10 cases of soda, 250 small bowls of hot food, 3 duffle bags of balls and goodies.

As we "settled in" to our new dorm room at the temple we discovered that the A/C was really not working AND the toilet wasn't flushing.  We were then given the option of two other rooms nearby to see if they were a bit more ready for their American guests.  One of the rooms had working A/C but no working toilet and the other had no A/C but a toilet with a powerful flush.  So, we debated what was more important: A/C or working toilet.  I pointed out, as the only guy in our party, that working A/C would affect every minute of our time in the room and we really only needed a working toilet maybe 1-3 times a day (albeit for a few precious moments).  I did also point out that there were public restrooms one floor down that could be utilized as needed so we opted for the room with the working A/C.  (Don't tell anyone but being the resourceful, clever dad that I am I noted that a) the room with the working toilet was actually accessible via a connecting door
and b) the place was very much not busy for the weekend since the temple was closed until the following Wednesday.  (The dorms we stayed at are meant for people coming to attend the temple from far away to have affordable and convenient housing so since the temple would be shut down I knew the room would also be quiet.) Soooo, with a strategically placed hanger in the bottom of the doorway leading to the other room we had access to a working toilet during our stay.

As that got settled we then hopped (more like crammed) into the car for our journey East out of Accra to the village previously known as Never's village. Never is the name of the boy who was once a trafficked child and was featured on an Oprah show exposing the dangers and realities of the life of the "fishing children."  Our host, Eric, facilitated Never's release and he has become a bit of a celebrity.  However, for us I think we will always think of this village as Borges's village since he really is the inspiration behind Save-A-Thon For Africa.

Due to some of the worst traffic I have ever seen the journey was about 3.5 hours there.  We sat cramped in the car that long time with bags of food or soccer balls in our laps.  I have to admit that the anticipation and great sights of Ghana made the trip go by fairly quickly and all of a sudden: there we were.

You can sort of tell by the look on the girls' faces that they were a bit hesitant in this sea of humanity and the associated sights, smells and sounds.  But they did about the only thing we could do: dive in and get to work!
I think the girls were thinking: Umm, where do we start?
Shockingly we had a nice young man very willing to help my girls. ;-)
As we started to organize the chaos--or try to at least--all three of us scanned the crowd of 300 people or so looking for the boy who catalyzed this whole effort: Borges!  Kylie said multiple times on the trip over, "I really hope Borges is there.  I hope we can find him!"  Truth be told there was no guarantee he would be there.  As we learned last March kids are trafficked into the fishing industry, or worse, more often than you might think, and the line between dead and alive in Africa is always thin so you just never know what might happen over the course of nine months in these villages.  Plus, nobody but the girls and I even knew his name and that he was the one who inspired us to do this.

So, imagine our relief and happiness when we spotted Borges toward the back of the crowd and his beautiful smile welcomed us.  His smile grew even more when Kylie asked him. "Do you know why we are here.?"  He answered with that same humble voice that asked me for a ball nine months earlier: "Me?!!"  Yes, Borges, we were there for you!  But given all of the food, balls, and gifts we brought 9,000 miles we thought we would share with 250 of your closest friends in the village.  He was proud and very happy with that.

More details on our visit to Borges' village in the next post.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Day 1: Final Preparations for the Villages

After the longest traveling day of our lives we were beat and slept in the next day (Friday the 21st) until 3PM local time and probably could have slept longer.  I got up and met with Eric, our tremendous host and friend without whose help this effort would have not been possible, to plan our giving strategy the next two days.

We whipped up some instant oatmeal, and then left the confines of the hotel (barbed wire fence, secure gate and all) to head into town to buy food and drink for the village children the next day.

The traffic was bumper-to-bumper which afforded the hundreds of roadside entrepreneurs we passed to hawk their wares with ample time and earnestness.  We passed on buying anything as we had other, more important purchases in mind.  But it's always fun to see what you can buy on the streets of Ghana:
Dried plantains?
Elf ears?
Santa mask anyone?

Once we got to the mall we ran into some real characters.  Some familiar and some...not so much.

Ghana Claus?

Fruit Drink Salesman
Eric arranged for 250 small bowls of chicken and rice for the next day and we hunted for 250 bottles of soda for the children.  All paid for by money raised from Save-A-Thon For Africa.  Both the meal and the drink are considered a real treat for the kids, which they maybe get only once or twice a year, and only if organizations like ours provide them.

Vincent, our driver and new friend, loading up ten cases of soda we bought at a roadside shop for the kids .

Once we had purchased the food and drinks we decided we needed to get gift bags to put the smaller items we would be handing out the next day to keep some sort of order to the process.  We drove down a few streets and stopped at a little shop that we had actually stopped at the night before at 11:30PM while looking for dinner and bought a loaf of bread.  Think Hawaiian bread.  Very good and sweet and about the only thing safe for us to buy off the street. We ate half of the loaf before falling asleep the night before.

Once we had the bags in hand we headed back to the hotel for dinner and a night of preparing for the village visits.  Dinner was beef stroganoff for me (had good luck with it in March so went with that), spaghetti and french fries for the girls.

We stayed up a while making gifts bags for the kids while I organized the more than 60 sets of reversible uniforms we would also be handing out the next two days.

Santa's (er...Adam's) helpers making gift bags for the kids in our hotel room. 
Organizing the uniforms into sets of 15 for teams in the villages.

Also, did I mention that we were changing hotels the next morning?  Forgot to tell you that I had arranged to stay at the dorm-like ancillary house at the LDS Temple in Accra.  My wife and daughter had stayed there four years ago and this was a place where we could stay more cheaply than the hotel we were originally booked for and in a safe and more pleasant environment.  However, when I called this facility from Houston right before our flight to London to confirm our arrival (had already been told we could stay all 4 nights) I was told that a large group of visitors from Togo had arrived and that there was now "no room at the inn."  I was a bit upset and the girls were concerned we would be sleeping on the streets of Ghana.  But with a connection or two I had up my sleeve by the time we got to London we were able to work it out to stay at the Erata Hotel (where I had stayed on my last trip to Ghana) for two nights and then move to the housing at the temple.  This way we were able to save some money ($45/night versus $100/night) and diversify our lodging experience in Africa.

So, with a big day ahead on Saturday the girls drifted off to sleep around 11PM but I didn't fall asleep until around 1AM.  Unfortunately, though understandably, the girls woke up around 2:30AM and couldn't go back to sleep.  They were on the free wifi texting, Instagramming, Facebooking and giggling until our scheduled wake-up call at 6:30AM.  Despite my pleadings to get some sleep or at least let me sleep they stayed up the whole night while I got what fitful sleep I could.  I understood, but didn't like, why they were awake since 6:30AM in Ghana is 11:30PM the night before in Utah but I was worried about their energy and strength for the next long day with the kids in the village.  With little choice in the matter the clocked just ticked on and we eventually got up, showered, ate free breakfast, packed our bags and went to the new "hotel" to get ready for the journey to the village.

Read on for details on Day 2 in my next post.