Children Here and There

Just so you know, there is a video at the conclusion of this post, but it’s cheating if you scroll to the bottom first.

It’s been almost three months since Erin and I boarded a 777 bound for Ghana. In Accra, the welcome sign in the Kotoka Airport boasts the country as “The Gateway to Africa,” and this may be true.  Economy Watch listed Ghana as the fastest growing economy in 2011, citing a GDP Growth Rate of 20.146%. The GDP is forecasted to grow by at least 8% in 2012. The country also has one of the strongest democracies in Africa, and President Obama’s travel there in 2009 was viewed as endorsement of Ghana’s stability. It’s younger urban population has a growing middle class that is smart, educated, and committed to improving conditions in the country. The airport sign may not be a far-fetched boast.

And then, you enter the villages.

Suddenly all the talk of a bourgeoning economy, foreign investment, and a strong democracy seem irrelevant. Many roads are impassable and houses are crumbling because of erosion. Schools are under-resourced and often lack basic supplies and trained teachers. To be fair, these conditions exist in the cities, but the cities are also where things get noticed – and perhaps addressed. The villages are harder to get to, have few resources, and feel far removed from the booming economic growth that is taking place in both Accra and Kumasi. But it was in the villages that we met the children. We spent time in after-school tutoring sessions with six beautiful boys and girls ages 7 to 18.

There is a familiar sentiment that goes like this: “children are children everywhere.” I can almost agree with that when I watch a 10-year-old Ghanaian boy stuff three pieces of pink bubblegum in his mouth, knowing that given the option, that is exactly what my 11-year-old daughter back in the U.S. would do. On the roadside in the village where we worked, I saw two little girls in tattered dresses sitting cross-legged in front of a small fruit stand where, hopefully, their mother was scratching out some kind of existence to feed them. They were facing one another and happily doing one of those little-girl hand clapping games while chanting in the regional language, Twi. And in an orphanage, I saw chalked hopscotch squares in the courtyard and inside found children sprawled in front of an old console television set. Children there are really just the same as children here, people like to say. But they’re not. Yes, they love bubblegum, hopscotch, and hand-clapping games, but then there is the reality of life in a developing country.

Consider this: Children there have impoverished parents who sometimes feel desperate enough to sell them into servitude. Children as young as four years old end up on Lake Volta untangling nets from beneath fishing boats in cold, dark waters. And sometimes they die in those cold waters. It’s called child trafficking and it’s prolific in Ghana.

Children there are fortunate if their parents can pay for school supplies and uniforms through their high school years. And in the rural villages, transportation is not provided for children to and from school. After primary school, the dropout rate in Ghana is high. Children who leave school are put to work to help feed the family, hoisting bowls on top of their heads to carry water bags, SIM cards, fruit and other items to peddle, or they work the family farm (which usually consists of one or two crops of vegetables and fruit). Sometimes, they are just needed at home to provide care for younger children, which ends their childhood far too early.

Children there are not given names as infants until they are 10 days old. If they die before then, it makes it easier to bury them and move on.

It’s overwhelming and much easier to revel in the “children are children everywhere” sentiment than to admit that there is a deep and wide injustice at work in the world when it comes to those who are the most vulnerable.

What to do?

We asked the same question, and came up with what seemed like a small answer, but we’re going with it.

We found a village. Actually, it found us. Ankaase is located in the Ashanti region of central Ghana, and the name means “under the orange tree.” It’s a place with streets and fields of red clay dirt, houses that have been cobbled together with tin and boards, and families who will welcome you to their home by pulling up chairs in the front dirt and asking you to tell your story. This is the place where we met our six children and their families. This is where we laughed with them, cried for them, and realized that our hearts will forever be intertwined with this village. We want to get creative, courageous, and maybe a little crazy about what we can do in this place. We returned home with more than sweet sentiments for the children there. We brought home in our hearts a village, and the resolve to make a difference for the children who live in this small corner of Africa’s gateway.

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