10 days in Ghana: Upstate volunteers help build community in Africa
Near the end of an 11-hour flight from New York‘s John F. Kennedy International Airport, we finally see Ghana out the plane‘s windows: saffron-colored earth and lush green foliage dotted with bright blue and pastel pink buildings. The country‘s beauty is overwhelming.
We descend into Accra, the African nation‘s capital, and the plane passes over the Gulf of Guinea, which I later learn has the most beautiful white sand beach that I have ever seen.
Getting through checkpoints and searches of some of our 24 suitcases and backpacks at the airport takes a couple of hours. The place is huge, confusing and packed with humanity, reminding me of Manhattan‘s Penn Station. Thankfully, all signs are in English, the official language of Ghana.
The head of our team is Lauri Rupracht, an Upstate nurse and director of the Americans Serving Abroad Program (ASAP), a nonprofit organization she founded four years ago. This is her ninth mission trip to Ghana. This time she is leading seven volunteers — Upstate nurses Maisha Brown, Cyndy Carr and Meghan Lewis; Qiana Williams, an educator from Syracuse; Traci Bender, a social worker from Buffalo; Sara Tucker, a college student; and me, an Upstate graphic artist.
We are on a 10-day mission trip to work with women and children in rural Ghana to address needs identified by the Ghanaian nonprofit organization Sem Fronteiras: menstrual education, oral health, dementia awareness and literacy.
We are greeted by Agyapong Gyamfi, chief operating officer of Sem Fronteiras (which means Without Borders), and his assistants, Lawrence Osei Asamoah and Isaac Appiah, who we quickly learn will be our guides, protectors and teachers for the entire trip.
We board a small school bus and take off on the highway, which was built with support from the United States during the administration of President George W. Bush.
If it weren‘t for the sheep and chickens by the side of the road, I‘d think we were driving through the Bronx. The traffic is crazy. We see gleaming high-rise office and apartment buildings, but much of the roadside looks like a ramshackle farmers‘ market. There are sheds built of scrap wood, corrugated tin and palm fronds, plus the occasional crashed car or truck left by the side of the road.
Street vendors maneuver between the lanes of whizzing cars, selling plantain chips, chocolate bars and small plastic bags of drinking water (tap water in Ghana is not safe to drink). Most are women carrying their wares on their heads.
It is a six-hour drive north to Offinso, the district where we will be doing most of our work. We quickly become accustomed to the unpredictable functioning of things in Ghana. A public bathroom may have sinks, but no running water. The guest house may have air-conditioning, but multiple power outages. Ghana is, as Rupracht tells us, “a good place to practice flexibility.”
The villages are quieter and more peaceful than the capital, and I continue to be wowed by the beauty that is everywhere: the artistry of kente cloth clothing, the rich colors of buildings, the golden dirt paths and tropical flowers. Everywhere, groups of children play outside, women walk and talk, and clusters of men sit together in the shade. The atmosphere is warm and sociable.
The sun sets at 6 p.m., as it does year-round. The first morning in Offinso, we begin by meeting with street women and children at a market in Kumasi, the capital city of the Ashanti region.
We do a presentation on the menstrual cycle, answer questions and distribute reusable menstrual kits, multivitamins and mosquito tents to protect the women and children from malaria, a leading cause of death in children under 5. Over 10 days, we provide services to more than 1,500 people.
The November 2017 mission was a community development trip. This spring, Rupracht is leading a larger mission of volunteers to provide medical care.
To learn how to donate or participate, go to healthlinkonair.org and search “Ghana” or visit, www.asap.ngo
Women‘s health/menstrual education
For girls in Ghana, starting their periods may lead to ending their education. Many, especially in poor, rural communities, lack access to sanitary napkins or any equipment to manage menstruation.
As a result, they miss several days of school each month, which leads to falling behind in classes and eventually quitting school. An unfinished education often condemns women to lives of limited opportunity and poverty.
To begin to combat this problem, volunteers used flip books to teach students about the menstrual cycle, female anatomy and ways to care for the body. Upstate nurse Meghan Lewis answered questions such as, “If the menses does not come, should I drink medicine to make it come?” The team demonstrated how to use the reusable cloth menstrual kits that are made by Days for Girls sewing groups across the United States. All female students received the training, and those with the greatest need received kits. In addition to visiting schools, volunteers distributed kits and did the training with a group of women living in the streets in Kumasi.
The goal of future missions is to provide manufacturing equipment and train staff and students at a vocational school in Offinso to sew the kits.
The challenge was to find practical dental care solutions for children who have limited access to safe drinking water and no access to dentists.
Volunteers used illustrated posters to explain the causes and progression of tooth decay and played a game challenging students to identify foods that are good for teeth (yams and bananas) and bad for teeth (soft drinks and candy).
Students took turns demonstrating proper brushing on a large anatomic model of teeth.
Volunteers gave fluoride treatments to the youngest students and distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste donated by dental offices in Central New York.
According to Agyapong Gyamfi, ASAP founder Lauri Rupracht‘s counterpart in Ghana, dementia is a misunderstood and undiagnosed condition in Ghana, resulting in the isolation and, in some cases, mistreatment of elders. The volunteers‘ goal was to help children recognize dementia symptoms and develop constructive ways to interact with elders affected by the disease.
Rupracht created role-playing skits for the classrooms. Volunteers asked students, “Does an elderly person in your family forget things or get confused?” and described scenarios such as, “There are lots of visitors and noise in your home and the elderly person starts to get agitated.” Volunteers took turns portraying the elderly person and family members who behaved badly (yelling) or constructively (talking softly and helping the elder to a quiet place). Then, students were asked to come up with ideas for good ways to help elderly people with dementia.
Keeter, Rupracht and Gyamfi are creating a book on dementia for children in Ghana.
English is the official language of Ghana, and classes are taught in English beginning in elementary school, but there are more than 50 Ghanaian languages. Volunteers visited schools in the Ashanti region, where Twi is the primary language spoken.
They began by reading a children‘s book aloud and asking students to repeat the text to practice their spoken English language skills. Each child created his or her own book by completing sentences such as “I am…” and “I like…” on preprinted sheets and illustrating their words with colored markers donated by ASAP. “Beautiful,” “gifted,” “talented,” “clever,” “helpful,” “intelligent” and “good boy” were words the students used to describe themselves in the books they created.
This article appears in the spring 2018 issue of Upstate Health magazine. Hear a podcast where Lauri Rupracht and fellow Upstate nurse Caitlin Phalen talk about their mission efforts in Ghana.