My last trip to Africa was yet another amazing experience!
I had a long layover in Ghana, Accra over the Thanksgiving holiday, so I decided to get in touch with Ben Markham from Empower Playgrounds to see if I could come see his playgrounds in action. He suggested a day trip to Pediatorkope Island with Alan Riser, an inventor and engineer who also works with him. It sounded right up my alley - an adventurous day trip away from the city of Accra, hanging with a local and immersing myself in the African culture.
(Last year I blogged about meeting this incredibly passionate man on a plane to Ghana, and his incredible playground/science project/light generating invention – see the website http://www.empowerplaygrounds.org for some fascinating information on how his non-profit organization is making a difference for kids in Africa. Or see my blog posting dated Jan 10, 2010.)
Ecstatic to bring my parents to Africa for the first time, we realized last minute that they did not have all the shots they needed to enter Africa. I was so bummed. Instead, the day started with Alan picking me and crew member, Laurence. We left at 7am on Saturday morning, early to get out of the city to beat traffic. (Yes, there is so much traffic in Accra!)
We drove for about 2+ hours towards the Lower Volta River in wonder over how truly civilized this part of Africa is. I was yearning to be out in the bush again – for me, real Africa. As we drove, Alan explained how he had also taken part in inventing something for the kids – a swing that generates electricity. He’d been contacted by Ben to help out in Accra, and so had left his family in Utah, and his part time house (he paid $80 for) in Zambia for a couple of months to help build playgrounds and swings.
Needless to say, the trip wouldn’t have been right without a great deal of story telling and few mini adventures. The first to set the tone of the trip, Alan managed to bribe his way out of getting a speeding ticket, and having to go to “court” on the spot. I think it dipped into his wallet about 20 cedi – or 10 bucks. We found out later that if Alan have been a local, he could have gotten off for 2 cedi. Or a dollar. I was taking a photo to document the moment, with Laurence whispering in my ear -”don’t get caught!”
Laurence and I had pulled any extra perishable food off the airplane to treat the first village to lunch. After touring the village, we held babies and watched the kids play on their playground. It is a mini miracle for these villages have been given something so wonderful. Play. Light. Learn. is the concept behind the playgrounds. Each hour of play generates 100 hours of light for the children to study to. The children were all so absolutely stunning, I couldn’t get enough of their happy faces.
We were taken to a guest cottage on the Volta River which was absolutely breathtaking. We then we met up with a local politician, John, who was going to take us in his boat to a couple of islands where Alan would scout the school property to see if it was a feasible spot to build another playground. We handed out clothing to the girls and toys to the boys, and Laurence was the greatest in determining who got what as it got a little hectic at times!
To sum up most of our day, we sat in a boat going from one island to the next, watching as local fishermen dived for oysters (a staple food in this part of Africa) using a long hose and air pump to stay underwater for up to 30 minutes. We visited remote villages, hiked through the jungle, played with children who knew Alan as Mungo, Mungo (a nickname he’s carried through the villages that means Mango, the fruit). We explored the villages and the mud huts to see how the village people lived, hung out with the locals who didn’t even speak English, and enjoyed the hospitality of everyone in the village. One man climbed a tree for coconuts, using his machete to crack open and let us experience coconut water and then coconut flesh, all fresh from the source. Amazing.
We were shown how the girls got their hair cut by holding a straight edge razor to a comb to keep it short. One woman was making nut soup. There were huge termite mounds everywhere you looked, and we learned that termites collected the best clay, therefore, the Africans would use it to build huts. I remember at one point it was so hot and muggy my eyeballs were sweating. Laurence was gung-ho to go swimming in the river. Instead, Alan jumped in and floated down current, all to the delight of the children. I must say, I was impressed with Mungo Mungo’s way with the children. They loved him!
One of my greatest joys of the day was spending time with the kids on the last island, Alorkpem, near where the Volta River meets the ocean. The children held on to my hands and were 5 deep on my left and right holding each finger. I played “Simon Says “games with them while the adults were talking business, and have photos and video of all of the kids mimicking my moves, whispering what I said in their pip-squeak voices (even though they spoke no English) and shaking their “booty.” Classic. I could have hung out with them all day! They all lined up on the river’s edge and waved as we left. It was hard to say goodbye.
Back in Big Ada, where we had boarded the boat, I wanted to try the food that was most interesting to me, fufu. Fufu is a staple food in this part of Africa – a thick paste made by boiling starchy root vegetable in water and pounding it with a mortar and pestle until the desired consistency is right. I’m not sure it had much taste, but I suppose I could have gotten used to its thick, salty texture. I was so hungry after a full day of exploring, taste didn’t matter at that point and it took the growling in my stomach away.
I certainly appreciate Ben and Chris taking the time to set me up on a wonderful day trip, the hospitality of Alan to host Laurence and I and spend all day with us, and the acceptance of all the village people as we visited their humble villages. When I first met Ben, he had 10 playgrounds all set up. That number is now up to 20 plus a couple of swing sets. It’s amazing! I sincerely hope that someday I will have the chance to visit again and see further progress. And next time, I hope my parents can join me.
Until then, it was yet another real perfect day for me in Africa.
Photos courtesy of Sherry Martin and Alan Riser.