Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What Doesn't Kill You

This foundation is actually going to kill me. As in if I drop dead at 21, somebody tell the authorities what happened.

Ok, I was being melodramatic, but now I’m being serious:

The things that we care about most are the things that tear us apart.
This foundation is the most important thing I’ve ever done. I care about Students of Success – or more accurately the people involved with it – more than anything else I’ve ever been committed to. Starting a non-profit may not ever have been my plan, but I’m married to this cause. I jumped into this role knowing that it will quite possibly be lifelong. I am humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to help take care of the people who have taken care of me so selflessly from the first day they met me.

I’m still trying to find my stride in my role as a non-profit founder though. It still feels like a pair of shoes that are too big, and I’m walking in territory that is completely unfamiliar. Representing this foundation sometimes requires me to be someone I am not... to act all grown-up and emotionally detached and in control, when most of the time I am actually stressed and so, so terribly unsure of what to do. And I am anything but emotionally detached; every part of me is invested in these people and this community.

Sometimes I wish that wasn’t the case. It means that setbacks hit me like a sledgehammer. I have trouble staying objective. Trouble viewing challenges with the proper perspective. I have always felt out of my depth in this role, and the waters just keep getting deeper.
I am not trying to whine. I am not trying to be a pessimist. I am trying to portray this experience accurately. And to be accurate – for all its wonderful victories and moments of joy, my decision to take on this foundation routinely tears me apart.

I found out today we missed the deadline for Global Giving’s open challenge. Which means we won’t be able to participate until March. Which means we unexpectedly can’t fundraise for the next four months.

As the founder of Students of Success Foundation, I would say that we will still be working on multiple projects and preparing for the point when we can start actively working towards the $5,000 goal we need to reach to earn a permanent place on the Global Giving website.

As Katherine Niemann, college student and confessional blogger, I want to say that I am discouraged and helpless and beyond frustrated. Perhaps a four month delay isn’t a big deal in the big picture, but today – right now – it certainly feels like a big deal. I feel overwhelmed trying to be a student and an employee and a board member of a start-up organization. Yet even when I juggle all those roles successfully, here I am with my hands tied for the next four months nonetheless.

People often ask me if I ever feel like I gave up my chance to have a typical college experience to be involved in the foundation.
It would be a lie to say I’ve never regretted my decision, however briefly.
But at the end of the day… even an extremely difficult day like this one… I imagine what life would look life right now if I’d said no. 
What if I’d told Worfa to run SISCO independently, and returned to life as a college student without this responsibility?
Perhaps I’d cry less. Metaphorically bang my head against walls less often. Literally throw pillows against walls less often. Use pillows for sleeping more often. Have more free time. Maybe tests and parties would seem more important.
Maybe I wish all those things were the case sometimes. Maybe there are moments I give in to feeling sorry for myself and wish someone else had been called on to do this. No- definitely there are those moments.
But if I could go back and make that decision again – knowing what life would look like after I said yes – my answer would be the same.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

One More Step

I am pleased to announce that as of October 8th, 2013, Students of Success Foundation is a fully registered non-profit organization with the Ghanaian government!

Although it will still be some time before we are fully operational and ready to start fundraising, we have reached a major milestone.

Feel free to check out what I've been working on (when I should be doing homework...) :

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Face In The Crowd

Fall is a shockingly beautiful time of year in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Marquette is alive with activity- NMU students cram every moment of the precious few remaining warm days with biking and hiking and cliffjumping, strolling through the picturesque downtown for coffee at Babycakes or a view of the sailboats spread out across Lower Harbor. The wind is brisk more often than not now, and the trees down 550 are just starting to ignite into a riot of color. Lake Superior hasn't faded to the steel gray it will be for most of the year; it is still a shade of rich, dark blue. Everywhere you turn is yet another view that looks like a postcard.
Here, I am a college student with neon-colored laces in my sneakers, a nosering and a mug of coffee perpetually in hand. My days consist of dragging myself out of bed for my 7 am shift at the group home, and pouncing on my unsuspecting housemates to perform the otoscopies (ear exams) required for my Audiology class. I frequent Black Rocks, a local brewery, and spend most Sundays catching up on homework. The contented humdrum of my routine is no different from that of any number of other college kids in Marquette.

Half a world away, the days are getting hotter. The rainy season has begun, and soon the streets of Awakorme will begin to routinely flood. 300 students at a little school called Success International have started another term. Five days a week they perch in a precarious jumble of splintery desks, scribbling furiously in flimsy notebooks bearing the faces of Hannah Montana or President Obama while Worfa copies another reading lesson onto the blackboard. The palm trees towering over the tiny school building have not changed. The wind rustling their branches still smells like sea salt and onions from the nearby farms. The ocean waves never pause, and neither do the fishermen in their constant rhythm of casting and gathering their massive nets. Sundays, the air is filled with the sound of church services that carry for miles.
I know these things as surely as if they were still happening right outside my window.

But there, I may dress in traditional, bold-patterned cloth, but the skin underneath will always be white. I can braid my hair, but it will still be blond. I may have found a home and a family in Ghana, but there's little chance of me ever passing as a Ghanaian. Although I miss Africa already, there is a certain comfort in being back in a world where I blend in seamlessly.
...Until, of course, someone asks me what I did this summer.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beetle Battle

Sorry for the belatedness of this post. It got lost on a flashdrive in the transition from Ghana back to Michigan. Better late than never, I hope!

I should just give up and rename my blog “Attack of the Bugs.”

I was woken up yesterday morning by a curious whirring sound, like the buzz of something caught in my spinning fan blades. The whirring was followed by a smack, and then a momentary silence. This pattern repeated several times and I am not ashamed to say that I literally hid under my covers. Despite the repetition, I had vivid images of a flying cockroach getting sucked into my fan and being spit out the other side and landing on me in a mangled mess. Who needs alarm clocks, eh?
When I finally had the courage to creep out for breakfast, I noticed a large, hard-shelled brown beetle about the size of a ping-pong ball flailing upside down on the floor. I wonder if that’s what made the noise, I thought. Victoria said they come from the coconut trees. It was quickly killed and thrown outside, where the body was soon carried away by- who else? The ants.

Fast forward to last night. I was laying cozily in bed when there it was again. Whir, smack, silence. Whir, smack, silence. Again, I retreated to the bottom of my sleep sack. It’s just my fan malfunctioning. There’s no need to get all creative imagining a bug zooming into your bed, I tried to reassure myself. When it continued, I finally decided I was being ridiculous and hopped over to the light switch- still inside my sheet- and retrieved my glasses.

There it was.

Another ping-pong coconut beetle struggling like an overturned turtle in the far corner of the room. My best guess is that it kept flying around, hitting the ceiling, and getting smacked down to the floor.
Well at least my imagination wasn’t too far off…

Never taking my eyes off it, I eased out of my sheet and got a shoe and the length of fabric that I wrap around me to go bathe. My plan was to dive under the fabric if that creep took flight. Thankfully, it was still incapacitated, but as I crouched over it with my shoe poised the only thing I could think was, The crunch this thing makes is going to haunt you until the day you die. I have too much self-respect to go wake up Worfa over a bug though. “At least it’s not a cockroach,” I said out loud for courage. WHAM. The force of my blow seemed to do nothing more than flip it over so it could start limping away. WHAM. Still moving. WHAM. Now I am not talking about sissy little love taps. I was whaling on this thing and it’s just a freakin’ tank. I hit it about six times before I thought it was probably almost-dead enough to leave alone. Then I reconsidered and figured that if it did somehow crawl away and disappear, my paranoia would never let me hear the end of it. So I flipped my small bathing bucket over the top of it, hesitated again, and then weighted it down with my shoe.
Anything strong enough to live through that kind of beating is strong enough to flip over a bucket and come find me in my sleep; I’m not taking any chances.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cooking Lessons

What is it about food that brings people and cultures together?

I’ve been learning how to cook some Ghanaian dishes from Victoria. She’s taught me how to make aji detsi (spicy peanut soup), jample (bean and corn meal paste) and mportomportor (thick yam stew) so far. I sit on a stool in our small kitchen, furiously scribbling directions in my notebook while she effortlessly mixes ingredients by memory. She knows proportions by pours and handfuls, while I try to estimate her measurements into cups and tablespoons. My efforts have earned me the humorous nickname “ameibovi” or “little black person.” She told me that I am not an American girl anymore, but an Awakorme girl. I should have learned from her the first time around, but I never did, I think partly because our relationship was so different three years ago.

My host mother and I have always had a good relationship. There was a significant language barrier though, and our personalities occasionally clashed. We are both incredibly stubborn and I think we mutually frustrated each other from time to time. In retrospect, most of our disagreements were probably just cultural misunderstandings that we didn’t have the language skills to work out. But even though I didn’t have quite the same closeness with Victoria that I’ve always had with Worfa, she took me in as her own from day one and I have always been grateful for that.

This time though, I can see a real difference in our relationship. Victoria’s English has improved significantly in the last few years. She still speaks in a curious, grammar-less pidgin that might be difficult for most people to decode, but we’ve both learned how to phrase things so that the other will understand and we get by just fine. It’s taken time- literally years- but I’ve also learned to see things from her point of view better and have patience when the cultural gap between us rears its obnoxious head. She asks me a lot more questions about America than she used to, trying to understand where I’m coming from. Do we have coconuts in Michigan? What do we eat? Is it cold this time of year? Do people smoke to keep warm? Why do people pierce their belly buttons? It’s a curiosity I never got see when we were struggling to communicate even on a basic level. She disapproves of many practices in the western world, but she always seems to be willing to make an exception on my behalf. She doesn’t like tattoos, but my butterfly is “fine-o.” She doesn’t like piercings, but my nose stud “it fit you.” We’re home alone together a lot more often than we used to be, and we frequently sit down to share a mango or watch a movie together. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we sit quietly. There’s a new camaraderie between us that in itself was worth the return trip. Perhaps it took two years of missing each other for us hard-headed women to realize just how much we mean to each other.

This time when I return home, I will have a part of Victoria to bring with me. I may not be able to mutter in Ewe or imitate her signature cackle, but I can prepare her recipes for my friends and family with the same care and happiness that she has always used to cook them for me.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Ants Chop Everything

One day, Africa as we know it is going to disappear under one giant anthill. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In addition to eating holes through my cement bedroom walls and occasionally infesting the sugar for my tea, a lot of them like to snack on humans too. Our friend Evans discovered the hard way that he can’t park his car in grassy areas after he turned it on only to have ants start pouring out of the vents.

Karina and I went to Accra last weekend to submit our first round of paperwork to the Registrar General’s Department. We’re waiting for our certificates- which theoretically should be ready any day now- but otherwise my forward progress for the foundation has slowed, and I think I’ve done just about all I can for the time I have left. It will be up to the other staff to finish the registration process without me.
We decided to use the waiting time to take a little vacation, a reward for the long hours we put in pulling Students of Success together in less than three weeks. Karina and I headed to Green Turtle, an eco-lodge west of Takoradi on the coast and old favorite of mine. I went there with my Julia on our first vacation, and again with Rudy and his Julia right before their wedding. Unfortunately, we only stayed for two nights because I got DEVOURED. We’re still not sure what attacked me since I never caught anything in the act, but our best guess is that it was a combination of ants and sandflies. Ant bites are pretty distinct: small, round and hard, fiercely itchy and typically occur 3-5 at a time in a straight line spaced evenly apart. You can practically map where the ant walked on you. “Three steps *chomp* Three steps *chomp* Three steps *chomp*”
Karina got an unusual amount of mosquito bites, but nothing like what I experienced. My legs were covered with hundreds of bites. The only good news- and that's a relative term- is that I had very few mosquito bites, which are the ones most likely to transmit disease. By the morning of the third day, however, I was in so much pain that we decided to leave early. The manager was apologetic; she said that the sandflies seem to go after some people more than others for whatever reason. I must be their crème de la crème…

Evans picked us up in Takoradi and we went on a day trip to Nzulezo, a remote village several hours from the city that is also known as the Village-On-Stilts. We paddled by canoe down a canal through beautiful wetlands for about forty minutes before coming out into Lake Amanzuri, a big body of water, black and still, that runs 30 or more feet deep in most places. Hugging one shore was Nzulezo, a cluster of wooden houses and buildings connected by walkways that sits on stilts about four feet above the water. It’s a fascinating place, a tight-knit and isolated community of 450 people in one of the more unlikely places. Our guide motioned to a squared-off section of water next to the school with two bamboo poles at either end, and explained that it’s a soccer field during the dry season. Most of the residents paddle across the lake daily to work on farms or palm wine tapping sites on the opposite shore. Karina supported the local economy by buying a bottle of akpeteshi- distilled palm wine that I think of as Ghanaian moonshine.
We paddled back before it got too dark, and along the boardwalk that led from the canoe launch to the road, we found a bona fide tapas bar of all things. Ghana never fails to surprise me. We stopped there for some dessert and the owner let us use some shot glasses to sample the akpeteshi. I don’t even want to know the proof; it burns for a while after it goes down, but I was surprised that I somewhat liked it. Fresh palm wine is very sweet and akpeteshi retains a little hint of that, which makes it actually drinkable.

The next day Karina and I set off for two days in Cape Coast, which has hands down the best shopping in Ghana. The streets around Cape Coast Castle are lined with rows upon rows of artisan shops boasting handmade goods- everything from drums to dresses to paintings. Needless to say, most of my Christmas shopping is already done.
Cape Coast has become my favorite big city in Ghana. It has a calm, quite atmosphere. Many of the buildings are old and elegant and the streets are wide, perfect for strolling around. There are so many tourists that you get the rare opportunity of exploring a place in Ghana without being singled out every thirty seconds.

I still have faded red marks from the Battle of the Bugs, but the itching and swelling stopped after a couple days, and I was fine by the time Evans picked us up on his way back from Takoradi to Accra. We spent two more days in the capital hanging out with Evans and his brother Selasi and making repeated trips to a Mexican restaurant we discovered. If it’s possible to become a regular in two days, Karina and I qualified.

We also spent an afternoon at Labadi Beach, Accra’s most popular beach hangout for locals and tourists alike. A young teenage boy was hanging out at our table while we played cards, running a surprisingly witty and humorous commentary on everything we did. Our game got interrupted when I stood up and confronted a man around my age who came up and stuck his cell phone in my face to take pictures of me in my bikini without my permission. When I sat back down, the boy’s eyes were huge. “Are you a bouncer in America?” He asked, awestruck. “You don’t look like one-” he glanced at Karina, “Well you do, but you don’t. But you certainly act like one!” Might just be one of the best compliments I’ve ever received!

I’m back in Aflao now to spend my last week with my Gomashie family. I enjoyed our mini vacation, but there’s something powerfully sweet about coming home. (Case in point: Christian just interrupted my typing to deliver me a fresh coconut from the yard. I just dribbled juice on my keyboard- which means more ants- but well worth it.) The way Worfa exclaimed, “I can’t wait to see you!” when I called to say we were on our way. Or the hug Victoria gave me without hesitation when I walked in the door. The shy, conspiratorial grins the boys give me when the adults aren’t looking. Only one resident of the house doesn’t seem happy to see me…

I woke up at 4:20 this morning with searing pain up and down my left leg and arm. I jumped out of bed and shook out my sheet to reveal a medium-sized black ant, a kind I don’t remember seeing before. I killed two more in the thirty seconds it took me to apply medicine to the bites- which were burning and sending shooting pains through my whole limbs, more like a bee sting than any ant bite I’ve ever had. I quickly decided to spend the rest of the night on the couch. Worfa and Victoria were pretty confused to find me there, until I explained. They pulled my mattress out to reveal yet another hole in my wall where the little creeps had started building an ant hill directly underneath my bed. I was sleeping on an entire community of these (insert string of expletives) ants! Victoria sprayed my room and aired out all my bedding, so hopefully that’s the last of it because my leg is still burning periodically. Those little suckers pack quite the punch!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ready, Set, Go

I’m convinced my fan is possessed.
(Which I wouldn’t ever say to anyone here, even jokingly, because most Ghanaians take possession very seriously.) Half the time I turn it on, it starts buzzing as it struggles to get going. So I’ll turn it off to mess with the cords, but before I can touch anything- voila! It starts running beautifully as soon as I turn it off… And no, I am not confusing on and off.
My fan is just one of countless things in Ghana that works in ways I don’t understand.

Most of those things I can take with humor, or at least shrug off, however today was a real gem of a day when it came to dealing with the faults in the Ghanaian system.
My afternoon was a three-hour debacle over going to see some land we’re interested in buying. We’re hunting for a permanent location for SISCO, and my friend Charity found a potential place. I was put directly in touch with Kwame- who is basically the realtor- and he suggested we meet between 1:00 and 2:00. I was told the land in Aflao is by the cement factory, so I asked him to call me when he was ready to go and we would meet by the police station, where the cement factory road splits off the main border road.
At 2:30 I got a call from Charity saying they were waiting for us, so Worfa and I booked it to the police station. No Charity, no Kwame. Another phone call. They’re at the District Assembly in Tokor where they work because the land is on the cement factory road in Tokor…which apparently is still officially considered Aflao. (Quick geography lesson: Denu is neighbors with Aflao on one side and Tokor on the other. All three are very close together, but travel time would be something like Ann Arbor-Saline or Marquette-Harvey because of road conditions) We got to Tokor as fast as we could, having already gone nearly ten minutes in the wrong direction to get to the police station…and Kwame had left because we made him wait too long. I was spitting mad by this point. I never did- and never will- figure out why he agreed to call me, didn’t, and then blamed me for being late. Or why he agreed to meet me at the police station in Aflao and then expected me at the District Assembly in Tokor. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, but I am running low in the Assume The Best Department. This type of situation has happened a lot recently, and just once I would love to get the right information the first time so things can proceed at the pace I prefer. (My frustration is just seeping off the screen, isn’t it? It was a rough afternoon, I apologize.)
Kwame finally waltzed in TWO HOURS later, and the 21-year-old college student in me wanted to pop him upside the head. The semi-adult non-profit Founder in me won, thankfully, and all I did was initiated a very firm handshake to show him that I am not some little American girl to be trifled with and he had another thing coming if he expected some groveling apology and the last thing I was going to do was sit meekly by while the men conducted business. Ok, ok- I doubt he read all that into my handshake, but it made me feel a little better to think he did.
Fortunately (for Kwame’s sake, I like to think), everything proceeded smoothly from there, and we’ve decided to pursue this location further.

Here’s the upside though, because being an optimistic blogger makes me a more optimistic human in real life:

Despite all my frustration over the numerous times I’ve had to wait, or gotten mixed signals, or gotten the wrong signal completely…it is truly amazing how quickly this foundation has come together. It’s been two and a half weeks since I first decided to do this, and already I have a Constitution, a complete Board of Directors, an Advisory Council, an Executive Director, and an Auditor.

Not only that, but I have a damn fine group of people in those positions.

Just today our final Board Member volunteered for the position. He has over a decade of experience working with international human rights for Ford, and is about to start doing similar work here in West Africa with a different company. He approached me, but I couldn’t have picked someone better if I’d tried. Not only is he more than qualified, but he should be physically on the continent far more often than I expect to be myself. I didn’t even hope to find that in a fellow American, which is why our Board was entirely Ghanaian except myself up. Pending one more vote of approval, that just changed.
The Head of our Board of Directors, Daniel, is an educator with two Masters degrees, and over thirty years of teaching experience in several countries. His wife Caroline is the Head of the Advisory Council; she has even more teaching experience and is currently the headmistress of a school. Samuel, our Financial Director, is an accountant with the District Assembly and former teacher. Our other Board Member, Tony, is a District Magistrate with a background in education and social work in addition to his decade of experience as a judge. Charlotte and Karina, two of our Advisory Council members, are social educators in Denmark, which is something of a hybrid between a social worker, counselor, special education teacher and super hero. One of the other Advisory Council members is my father Thomas, with his extensive leadership experience in business and the military. Our last Council member is Nichodemus, a young teacher who is currently working towards a degree in Educational Psychology. Worfa is our Executive Director; his qualifications have already spoken for themselves. Of all people, though, I assumed that our auditor would be pretty cut and dry, just someone hired to keep things legally and financially sound. But Emmanuel, the auditor we just hired today, works for the Education Office at the District Assembly and is just as passionate about our mission as the rest of our crew- you could even use the word “excited.”

I honestly don’t know how this happened. I don’t know how I’ve ended up with eleven people who among themselves are experts in law, finance, business, social work, psychology, general and special education, and human rights issues. Several of them have previous experience working with non-profits. Most of them are far more educated than I am. And every single one of them is dedicated to our cause. They all believe in what we are doing.
Believe me when I say I didn’t expect such a strong group of people on my side. They give me this marvelous little hope for the future of this foundation. As if maybe the crazy dreams I’ve dreamed for the last three years might suddenly have rooted into something far more concrete and realistic. It must be, because I leave for Accra tomorrow to start the registration process.

Monday, July 22, 2013


There comes a time in every girl's life when she has to decide whether lifting the lid of the outhouse toilet and seeing a small cockroach hanging out on the seat is a good enough reason to hold it, or should merely be accepted as a matter of course.

Ok, well, maybe not every girl's life, but that time has come and gone in this girl's life at least. I'm proud to say that I've been in Africa long enough to accept such things as a matter of course. (For all of you secretly wondering, I did move it before I sat down though.) My paranoia about finding creepy crawlies in my room/bed/etc. is quite low and my tolerance for actually finding them in those places is quite admirable. I am not some silly, squeamish tourist, thank you very much.

I sit down at the table in my room to do some more foundation work and keep hearing a rustling sound, which I assume is coming from outside. (Let me emphasis this: the movements of the unidentified marauder were loud enough to hear.) Then I glance down at my feet and catch a glimpse of movement. Up go the feet for safety, down goes the head for inspection.

Then I see it: I've met rottweilers that would be intimidated by this cockroach.

I'll admit it- I screamed. From the living room, Victoria shouts "What? WHAT??"
"BAGBLAJAAAAAA!" I scream back, launching myself across the room. (Victoria spends the next half hour in a helpless fit of delighted giggles because I answered her in Ewe.)

Worfa, Victoria and Christian come bursting in just in time for the beast to climb up the wall, on to the table and take a flying leap. I start shrieking at a frequency only dolphins can hear. It lands on my computer- not on me, like I'd expected, but this is just adding insult to injury now.

Worfa approaches, ready to kill. It crawls to the edge of the table and launches itself into the air. I dive behind Worfa, in full panic mode now. "I'm under attack!!!" I howl. Victoria is laughing hysterically by this point, and at the same time trying to apologize. For the cockroach's presence or his actions, I'm not sure which.

The fiend lands on the floor and starts making a mad dash for my bed- my BED of all places- and I am still screaming and trying to get as far away as possible and have my hands pulled up to my chest like little T-Rex arms.

 Worfa finally crushes it with his bare foot, picks it up by one leg with his bare hand and marches it outside. Danger over, I start to feel just a little bit foolish for reacting that way to a creature that doesn't bite, sting, or transmit diseases, and suddenly looks about the size of a large matchbox rather than a large dog.

Perhaps I need to spend a little more time in Africa after all.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Karina and I took five of the kids to Denu beach yesterday. I wanted to do something special for Sonia's recent 13th birthday, and give the boys a break. Kids work HARD in Ghana. Christian, Sampson and Sylvanus (approximately 13, 10 and 9 respectively)- the three nephews that live with us- help wash clothes and dishes, prepare food, run errands, sweep the compound, etc. When they're not helping out, they're expected to stay quiet and out of the way, but on hand for when they're needed. I'm not trying to suggest that the boys are mistreated in any way. They have clothing, food, shelter and a safe home where they are treated kindly. The tough expectations put on children are part of Ghanaian culture and part of living in a place without many of the modern conveniences we Americans are generally used to. Still, I thought they deserved an afternoon off.

At the appointed time, Karina and I emerged from our Constitution-writing huddle in my room to find five children (our neighbor Felix joined us too) dressed in their Sunday best and ready to go. Hesitantly, I went up to Worfa and tried to explain, "You know, they don't have to dress up. I want them to be able to run and play in the water..." So they were sent back to put on shorts under their stiff, swanky blue jeans. Getting them to ditch the jeans completely was probably a little much to expect, and the kids probably enjoyed the chance to dress up anyway.

Sampson and Sylva in their Sunday best
We arrived at the beach and set up camp...and then they just stood there. Five kids, dressed to the nines, trying desperately to figure out how to behave in this situation. For many parents in Ghana, something as simple as taking their children to play at the beach is not a realistic option. The kids in Awakorme are very comfortable with me; they know I am a playmate and a pushover and don't generally mind being poked or prodded or climbed on. But suddenly these five were trying very hard to act grown up and well-mannered for me in public. As if I could ever be ashamed of them.


Karina and I realized we needed to set an example, so we took off whooping and hollering towards the water and made a big show of kicking our feet in the surf.

The kids crept closer.

Another wave came and Karina and I pranced around ankle-deep in the water, motioning for them to join us.

With a lot of encouragement, they shed their fancy clothes slowly to reveal shorts and undershirts.

At first they wouldn't even come close enough to actually let the waves touch their toes.

Then they got brave enough to join us and dunk their feet.

I swear you could see their uncertainty cracking off of them in pieces like a visible shell. Slowly, laughter started breaking out. Then Felix darted out farther and got caught in a wave up to his knees. Then Sampson had the bright idea of throwing Sonia on the ground right as a wave came so that she got completely soaked. Then Christian figured out he could dive right as a wave came and belly surf for a couple of feet. Then all hell broke loose.

Just as I'd hoped it would. 

Digging for crabs
Karina and I relaxed nearby like watchful parents while the kids spent the next couple hours playing, splashing, digging and chasing crabs. They were soaked and covered in sand head-to-toe by the time we left the beach. Those five, quiet, well-groomed kids I showed up with?
                                                                                          No where to be found.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Share the Story

Yesterday was a long day for me. I left the house at 7:00 a.m. and spent the next four hours going all over Aflao to visit other private schools in our area. I'm collecting salary and tuition information from these schools so we can determine if SISCO is indeed charging a lower rate for students while paying a higher wage for teachers in comparison.

I heard the same stories over and over:
"The parents aren't educated. We have to fight to get them to understand its importance."
"The parents don't think school matters."
"I used to go to private school, but the fees were too high."
"The children don't come because their families can't pay."
"Only about 40% of our students actually pay the school fees."
"We charge as little as possible, but how else can we pay our teachers?"
"Change is slow."

Some of the headmasters talked to me readily and shared their own struggles, some of them eyed me suspiciously and hesitated to give me the information.
But out of nine schools, not one refused to help.
The truth is, as I made my pitch to them and they responded, we were all telling pieces of the same story. To different degrees and with different approaches, we are all fighting for the same outcome.
Often, that is inspiring. One headmaster outlined his vision for his school to me before I'd told him anything about SISCO. He wants to keep school fees as low as possible so all children will have the chance for an education. He's trying to help the parents understand why even the smallest of fees is worth the often large sacrifice they represent. He's struggling with the careful balancing act of trying to pay his teachers a living wage despite collecting barely any income. ...Sound familiar? This same headmaster then took me to the next six schools on his motorbike, which is the primary reason my morning was as successful as it was in the first place.
Sometimes, though, it is frustrating to see other schools take a radically different approach to solving the education deficits in Ghana, compared to how SISCO has chosen to operate. At one school I visited, the sound of the cane swishing through the air and smacking against human flesh didn't stop once in the ten or so minutes I was there. Not once. Sitting through that brief meeting and attempting to listen to the headmistress with a calm expression took strength I wasn't sure I had. Every muscle in my body was tense. That ugly sound was all I could hear. But I am playing a delicate game of diplomacy, and I cannot walk into a stranger's school and tell them how to run it if I want to maintain SISCO's positive reputation in the Aflao community.

So why the sudden need to find some cold, hard, factual evidence about SISCO's rates?

Well, that's another piece of the story.

Wednesday night Worfa and I decided to begin the process of creating and registering a non-profit organization in Ghana based on our work at SISCO.
I never intended to start a non-profit; that wasn't the plan even once SISCO and its scholarship program were born. I never wanted to start one either. And I will be the first to admit that I am not qualified for the job. I wanted to register SISCO through an existing organization, thus lifting the burden off my shoulders... instead I find myself undertaking a lengthy and complicated process I know- well, knew- nothing about.

Wednesday night I didn't know the difference between a Board of Directors and an Advisory Council. I didn't know which departments of the Ghanaian government oversee the creation of NGO's. I didn't know anything about writing a Constitution, or a Vision and Mission. Two and a half days later, I can tell you all those things. And what's more, our hopeful foundation has the seeds of all those things.

Students of Success Foundation is on its way to legally existing at a speed as fast as humanly possible. Meaning I have eaten, slept and breathed this process since the moment I made the decision to do it. I have never spent ten...twelve...eighteen hours a day on a single project before. Nothing was ever quite that important (or pressed for time!). So why am I doing it now? Much less for something I neither wanted nor intended to do period. Well... Karina tells me I'm too afraid to take credit for things. And although I can't rightfully take credit for all of the lightning-quick progress we've made since Wednesday- Karina herself is responsible for a large chunk of it- I will take credit for this: When it became clear that starting our own non-profit was our best (and essentially only) option, I stepped up because it was asked of me.
I will do whatever is needed to make sure our story gets its happy ending.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fight or Flight?

Today and yesterday have been incredibly stressful.
For a long time now, my Dad and I have been working with an online fundraising platform to find a nonprofit partner for SISCO, so that we can be registered with an official nonprofit and have a tax-deductible, legally recognized, online way to fundraise and continue our support of the school. With the recent financial ban on West Africa, our former way of continuing the scholarship is no longer an option anyway, and the situation has become more complicated. I was supposed to get into contact with two men involved with the organization while I was here, to go through this registration process with Worfa in person, but both numbers ended up being dead ends. This process that I understand so little about had ground to a halt yet again. And I went into a downward spiral of frustration that ended with me laying on the floor of our living room crying. If that sounds like a three-year-old's tantrum, just ignore the similarity. It was a perfectly rational adult reaction to discouragement.

You see, nothing can make you feel quite so crushingly small as trying to take on the problems of the world. Too often I focus on trying to do it all, instead of focusing on doing what I can. There's no quicker way to feel beaten down. I have always believed that there is a reason I came to Aflao and the Gomashie home instead of someone else, but I question whether I am the right person for this job nearly constantly. I don't have the benefit of age or experience or special skills. I come with nothing except a whole lot of love for the people in my African community. I wish that were enough, but what good is a bleeding heart without the strength and practicality and resources to support it? The responsibility I feel towards this school and its students seems overwhelming. The obvious solution is to get SISCO registered as part of the nonprofit so I can just do the fun part- fundraising!- without worrying about trying to manage everything directly. But when this process has been so frustratingly slow, even the solution to my problem seems too problematic, and it takes everything in me not to go into full-out avoidance mode. How many times have I wanted to shake my fist at the universe and say, "I am just a college student! Find someone better qualified!"

I was in such a funk yesterday and the better part of today that even being at the school and witnessing everything that we (and this is a grand 'we' that includes hundreds of people, including many of you reading this right now) have accomplished so far was only more discouraging. The decisions that Worfa, the nonprofit organization, and myself make will affect nearly a dozen jobs, and several hundred kids' educations. Thoughts kept racing around my head, "What if it all falls apart? What if we can't give these kids everything we've hoped to? Everything they deserve? What if the partner doesn't work out? What if we wait too long and by the time I go home, the ban prevents me from doing anything with SISCO's money? What if we use that money now when we should have waited??" What if...what if...what if... It's one of the most magical phrases in the world, but it has a dark side.

It took a lot of desperate praying and some quiet time with my loved ones to clear my head and bring back some of the stubbornness I typically have in spades. "Ok," I told myself, "It's time to fight. The living room floor will always be here when you get back."
A half dozen emails and phone calls later- and with the help of a Dad in shining armor- I have a phone appointment with our prospective partner tomorrow, a meeting with a trusted mentor who is the headmaster of a successful school on Friday, plans to get estimates for some potential projects...and a little bit of hope back in the reserves.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Mama's Heart

I asked my mom to share a little bit of her perspective. Her involvement with my trips to Ghana has matched my own on multiple levels, and I know so few parents who would support me as fully as she has from the first moment I told her I didn't think Kentucky was the place for me. Enjoy!

What do you do when your 18-year-old daughter tells you that she is applying for a position in Africa and leaving at the end of the summer? You sew a sleep sack, apply for a travel visa, buy vitamins, take lots of pictures during the last week she’s home, drive her to the airport and then wave good-bye. That’s what I did anyway. Ok, I did a lot more than that, but seriously- when it comes to Katherine, the best thing anyone can do is just to get out of her way. She’ll find a way to go over, around, or through if necessary to accomplish her goal and I knew from the time she was a very young girl that one day she would live in Africa. It was just happening much sooner than I 'd expected. I thought I’d have at least four more years to prepare, but Africa was calling and Katherine was answering. 
As I am writing this, Katherine is once again in Africa – the home she loves so dearly – but this time she is three years older, wiser, and away for a much shorter period of time.  In some ways, this trip is much easier because I have a better idea what to expect, but it is in no way easier on this mama’s heart. She is so far away and there is virtually nothing I can do if she calls to tell me her luggage didn’t show up, or that she’s stranded in a strange city, or that every man she passes wants to marry her, or the ATM machine ate her money card or sadly, that one of her students has died. So while my heart aches, all I can do is cry with her over the international phone lines.
It was a lot of work to get her ready to go when she left three years ago. I spent hours on the computer googling everything I could think of from necessary vitamins & over-the-counter medications, clothes to pack, required vaccinations, how she would get money, as well as permethrin.  Don’t forget the permethrin! I soaked and sprayed her sleep sack and clothes in permethrin insecticide to ward off mosquitoes.  I prayed that the chances of keeping her from getting malaria were much higher than the chances of her growing an extra arm or leg. 
This time the research was much easier. I only had to find out how she would get money because Ghana has been placed on the financial watch list since the time Katherine lived there. That meant the Visa travel money card from AAA she used the last time would not work. Katherine’s travel visa and mandatory Yellow Fever vaccination are still good, so I didn’t have any international calls, emails or mailings to make. She also had her own idea about what clothes she would wear and medications she’d bring, so it cut down on my shopping trips too.
I once read that when a woman becomes a mother, she spends the rest of her life with her heart walking around outside her body. Little did I know how true a statement that would be in my life. Right now my heart is walking around Africa…..beating strong to the rhythm of the Ghanaian people, while my body is thousands of miles away.