Saturday, February 23, 2013

Going on Tour

For all of you that I was not able to see during my all-too-brief visit to the US, I hope you had a merry Christmas, or happy Chanukah, or an awesome Festivus for the Restivus! (Does anyone actually know people who celebrate Kwanzaa? Cuz I don’t.) And of course, a Happy New Year!

I’ve been back in Ghana for about a month now, and have fallen steadily back into the pattern of daily life. Some quick little updates before I dive into the juicy stuff—we have two new volunteers now: one a student from Canada, the other a nurse from Boston, and I have to say, it is not only nice to have other expats around, but it’s even nicer to have other females around for a change. Not that I don’t love my co-workers, but it will be nice to have voices to back me up when the whole, “women belong making babies or dinner” argument inevitably surfaces again.

Another short update: the grants funding both projects I’m working on in Ghana are scheduled to finish up this summer, so something’s going change in the next few months. Stand by.

So. I thought we’d kick off the New Year (yes, I know its February, but this is the premier post of 2013) with a little work talk, and wrap it up with a little fun talk. Not that work isn’t fun, but, you know, all work and no play make readers fall asleep...or something like that.

Part One
To begin:  The USAID grant I work under is a three year project, and each year of this project, we are supposed to expand programming into new regions/cities/villages/whatever. So in the first year we were only working in Accra, in the second year we expanded into two major cities in the Volta region, and now, in year three, we expanded into five new villages in the Volta region. It’s really quite exciting because these villages have not really had our type of program before.

In a community driven project, you need to get the community involved (obviously). And one challenge that we have faced in other places, is really getting our name out there, other than within our small target population. To address this problem, one of my coworkers and I had an idea to combine interactive theatre performances, to lure in the crowd, with free HIV testing and health screenings, to really show the community what we (sort of) do. Through some interesting brainstorming sessions, we finally came up with a “going on tour” concept, complete with tour bus, health equipment, t-shirts, roadies and groupies. Ok, maybe not groupies.

But in order to start working in a new place, there are certain protocols that need to be followed. (Especially in Ghana, where they looooooove their bureaucracy and rigmarole protocols). So late last year, our project coordinator in the Volta region and I went around, meeting with the local assemblies and clinics in each village, to get them onboard and involved in our project. It was a long process, and a nightmarish cornucopia of logistics, but two weeks ago we pulled off the grand village tour of 2013!

Some of our actors on the tour bus

It was quite an adventure—six theatre performers, three office workers, our volunteer nurse, and me. We hit five villages in five days, which may not sound that impressive, but if you could only see the roads that connect these villages, you would understand.

So here’s an outline of our event:

In each of the villages, we set up a table and small screen for HIV testing in busy parts of town—markets, stations, squares…etc, the idea being that we wanted to be in the place that would get us the most attention (youngest child syndrome for NGOs..) After setting up, the theatre performers start one of the numerous silly games that they play, usually in a circle involving some sort of song or dance, to attract attention. After enough people have gathered, the theatre facilitator explains that they are about to put on a small performance, and then introduces the main character. Then the performance begins!

The storyline we chose for these events was a story showing HIV stigma and discrimination. It follows a young girl, who completes Junior high school, and wants to continue on to Senior high school, but her father is unable to pay her school fees. After visiting a few relatives who are also unable to pay, the young girl goes to one of her school mates, to see if she can help. The school mate tells her about a man who has been helping a lot of young girls pay their school fees, and offers to call the man and introduce them.

Protagonist in the center

When the main character goes to visit this man, he makes it appear like he is not going to help her with schools fees, unless she “helps” him as well. (What’s our poor protagonist to do?!) In the end, she succumbs, and soon after discovers that she contracted HIV.

Being seduced!

After learning her HIV status, the main character confides in her father, who throws her out of the house. Left with nowhere to go, she returns to her schoolmate that introduced her to the man, but after the schoolmate learns that the protagonist is HIV positive, she rejects her as well.

Angry Daddy!

Begging :(

The performance ends with the protagonist on her knees, begging the audience to help her. It’s a sad story, and unfortunately, the dilemma the protagonist faces is not uncommon in Ghana. Transactional sex is pretty normal, and many families struggle to pay school fees for their children.

Anyway, following the performance, the facilitator comes back out to lead a discussion on HIV stigma, modes of transmission, and the importance of learning your status—a perfect segue into the next phase of our event—HIV testing and BP screening!

Volunteer nurse checking BP

Each event was set up a little differently, but for the most part, we had a nurse from the village clinic conducting the HIV tests, and our volunteer nurse screening for high blood pressure. But in some places, people were only interested in HIV tests, so both nurses were doing HIV testing. Anyway, while people were waiting for their turn, we had condom demonstrations, STI talks, and passed out lots and lots of reading materials. 

Condom demonstration

STI Discussion using real pictures of STIs...I'd post some, but they would give you nightmares

And although there were some hiccups along the way, which is to be expected since this was our first time doing something like this; all in all, the events were very successful. We even had to turn people away at times because we didn’t have enough HIV test kits to meet demand! It was pretty encouraging. Hopefully we can do a follow up tour soon. And maybe this time, we WILL have groupies.

The crew! 

Part Two

The Volta region of Ghana is one of the most beautiful (in my opinion). It has Lake Volta, the Volta River, mountains, MONKEYS, and a whole bunch of other natural attractions. But even though I have been in Ghana for a significant amount of time, I have not seen it all! While time is a big challenge, the biggest challenge is finding someone to go with. Most Ghanaians have either been before, have no interest, or have some other reason for not being able to go. This is why I am happy to have new volunteers! Because they haven’t been places, they want to go, and they usually only have a few months to try and get everywhere they want to.

So, after our week long village tour in the Volta region, the volunteer nurse and I stayed the weekend, and did some sightseeing—first to Wli Falls, and then back to the monkey sanctuary!

This sign make me giggle..bats and butterflies are the only creatures worth specifying! 

Wli Falls, the highest waterfall in Ghana, gets its water from the Agumatsa River. To get there is a fun hike, which you can either take one hour to the lower falls, or three hours to the upper falls. Unfortunately we got there too late to do the hike to the upper falls, but it was still a really nice walk and you have to cross a bunch of log bridges that take you over the zig-zag river before getting to the falls themselves.
I think the pictures pretty much speak for themselves.

The path to the falls

Giant tree

One of many log bridges

The falls!

 And, even though I was not planning on it, we did end up swimming under the falls. But my friend had to wait a bit before we could go, not because I was scared, but because when we first got to the falls there was a big group of students there, and I was not willing to be the subject of camera phone pictures and videos, wading across the rocks in my underwear! And despite many stereotypes of Africa, it was freeeeeeeeeezing!

You can see us way in the distance. Our guide was not the best photographer, haha

And although I did go to the monkey sanctuary again, my camera was dead at that point, so I wil have to get the pictures from my friend before posting about that leg of the adventure :)

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