Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Finding Hope In Hard Places

At a glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.   Yes, raw sewage gutters lined the side of the streets, separating the buildings from the road as far as the eye could see, with rickety boards or cement blocks placed across the gutters so that we could safely cross over to the buildings or merchant stands dotting the neighborhood.  

This was Ghana, and for Ghana, this was pretty typical whether you were in Osu, an urban, bustling part of Accra, or in a small community such as this.  

In the months leading up to this trip, I had researched many of the challenges facing Ghanaians, and sanitation was near the top of that list.  Being married to a plumber, I knew that he would take interest in knowing how Ghana manages this concern compared to the way it is managed back home.  Only roughly one third of Ghanaians have access to some form of sanitation infrastructure such as toilets, pit latrines or other means, and most of the sewage in Ghana is not processed in ways that reduce the impact on health and environment.  

It is an unthinkable but well known fact that it is easier for people in extreme poverty to access a cell phone than a toilet.

The local pastor led our team across the gutter under the watchful eye of a nearby merchant selling her items a few feet away.  Once across, we entered a small concrete walkway between two buildings, much as we’d done earlier when visiting the home of Prince, a sponsored child from Enyan Abaasa.  Even the yellow walls were the same color they’d been in the walkway near Prince’s house.

Really, nothing seemed out of the ordinary…  but two things we’d been told in preparation for this visit made us wonder what we’d find on this last home visit.

We were here on behalf of Beth, a sponsor from the US who had some concerns about her sponsored child, Vivian, who lived near the area where we were working this week.  Beth had shared with us that the letters from Vivian were very basic and repetitive even after a few years of sponsorship, leaving her feeling very disconnected and concerned as a sponsor. We contacted Compassion ahead of time and asked if there was any way we could get to speak to the child development workers and to meet the child and her family while we were in their area.  Compassion did their best to work this into our already full schedule, and that was what had led us to this small community in the Central Region.  

Just before we drove to this area where Vivian and her family lives, we dropped by the local church office where the Compassion staff met with us for a few moments.  Vivian is registered with this Compassion affiliated church.  One of the district supervisors, Samuel, had been our Compassion host when I traveled to Ghana in 2011.  It was great to connect with him after all these years.  He was glad to see us back in Ghana and to hear of the journey that had led us here, and he gave us the opportunity to go through Vivian’s file, much as we had done with our own sponsored children. 

Looking through Vivian’s file, we could tell that Vivian struggled in school, and that the letters were indeed reserved and guarded.   We asked the staff about Vivian’s family situation, and rather than to simply answer, the workers looked at each other, their expressions telling us that they were looking for the right words to convey that things were very difficult in Vivian’s situation.  What they did say was that Vivian has developmental challenges and that as for the family situation, we would see for ourselves when we visited her home.

Walking single file between the aging, yellow walls of the buildings, groceries and gifts in hand for the family, we followed our leader as he led the way to Vivian’s home.  

Turning around the next corner, the smell of raw sewage rising with the heat waves hit us full force.  We looked at each other silently as we kept going, sidestepping a stream of raw sewage flowing from various places and pooling in the dirt paths leading to different homes, while chickens pecked at the dirty ground looking for something -- anything -- to sustain themselves.

A few more turns later, we saw a group of sparsely clothed, barefooted children playing in a small rocky yard surrounded by a small tightly packed cluster of homes with rusty metal roofs.  Nearby, a beautiful young woman with an infant strapped tightly to her back bent low over a tub of soapy water, scrubbing clothes, and hanging them to dry above the stream of raw sewage.

We stopped and climbed carefully into the yard.

This was Vivian’s home.

(Vivian's home is the room inside the door on the left)

We had seen homes in poor state of repair all through our travels, including some of the homes we had visited earlier.  There had been crumbling walls and holes in the roof at the twins’ home an hour or two earlier… and more.

This, though… this was different.  There was no peace.  What there was in its place was palpable despair and disorder that we hadn’t experienced elsewhere that day, or on this trip.  The home was in very poor shape, probably the worst we'd personally seen.  The family dynamics were visibly strained.  And mere feet away, raw sewage was snaking its way between houses where children walk barefoot and play.

We quietly observed through the Ghanaian visiting rituals of introductions and exchanges.  Vivian’s mother had several children and appeared to be expecting another child. Her countenance was distant and disconnected from the activities surrounding her. 

Vivan (yellow/blue dress) and her mother (pink/white dress)

We had been told that Vivian’s mother was typically absent in the home, and that Vivian was being raised by Vivian’s grandmother.  This helped explain the complete disconnect between Vivian and her own mother.  Thankfully, Vivian's grandmother is warm, welcoming and provided the best environment she could for the children.  

Vivan’s aunt was the young woman with the infant on her back, washing clothes.   The small, barefoot children we had seen when we first arrived were Vivian’s younger siblings, three girls ages 9, 7 and 5.  They were not part of the sponsorship program, but the oldest three children, including Vivian, do attend school. 

There were no male parental figures in the family; not a grandparent, father, or a husband present. 

When our leaders spoke to Vivian, she barely responded.  She sometimes stared into space or at her feet until  her grandmother repeated the questions directly to her.  Sometimes, she would quietly respond to her grandmother, but sometimes, the questions were met with complete silence.  She seemed like a shell of a child part of the time, and then at other times, she would come alive and be in the moment with a warm smile.  It became clear as we were there why there had been such a struggle getting to know this child through sponsorship letters. 

When the time came for the family to ask our team questions as dictated in social customs, the local leadership addressed the grandmother and asked her directly what we wanted to communicate to us. 

Vivian's grandmother

She gave a short but intense response in the local language we didn’t understand, and her words made our local leadership team visibly startle.  Not knowing what she had said, or why it had unsettled the local team, we waited, anxious for them to translate her words to us.  They did not immediately translate.  We tried to coax them by telling us that we had a good sense of humor (nothing would surprise us!).  Instead, they exchanged rapid-fire words among one another in an effort to determine what was appropriate for them to share with us, while also preserving the family's honor and dignity.

What could she possibly have said?

A few things came to mind…  we knew from our advocacy work that families are not permitted to ask the sponsors for money or provisions, and we had also heard of desperate families in developing nations, especially Haiti, asking for visitors to take a child back to North America with them. 

In this particular case, the answer was closer to the first thought that came to mind – but it wasn’t a plea for money, it was a cry for help.  The grandmother is living in a really difficult situation, being left to raise her grandchildren without a husband to help her, without a source of income, in deplorable living conditions.  Given Vivian’s development delays and the family home environment being especially challenging, the grandmother was desperate for support, but specifically told the local leadership that she doesn’t want a handout, she wants help establishing a business so she could support herself and her family. 

It will take some time to determine what kind of skills she will require, what type of business she would be best suited for, and what it will take to help her get there.  The local leadership is prepared to help walk her through the necessary steps to offer a long term solution, rather than a quick fix that isn’t sustainable.  To do this in a sustainable way could take months, it could take longer.

Given the severity of the circumstances, one of the most practical ways to help would be to provide additional resources through Compassion in the form of a financial gift specifically for this family, so that the local leadership can have access these additional resources to help this grandmother obtain what she needs to establish a sustainable source of income.  Perhaps a small merchant stand, a sewing enterprise, bead making supplies, taxi service, etc. 

Our team members’ hearts were marked and burdened by this visit.  Much time was spent debriefing in the van on the way back to the guest house, and in the days to come.  Even now, back home, our hearts continue to be heavy for Vivian and her family.

Traveling to Ghana (or any developing nation) for humanitarian purposes brings you to some of the hardest places and situations.  There is extreme poverty nearly everywhere, and it can at times be overwhelming as we know we can’t help with every single situation we encounter, but there are times when we’re faced with a situation and know we are meant to be a part of the changes that brings the opportunities for a better future. 

The partnership we’ve had with Enyan Abaasa’s community in the past 7 years has been a great example of focusing on one community, and doing something to help meet their needs. It takes so little to make a positive impact in places like these.

While in Ghana to wrap up the library project, we were able to determine what our next long term project will be, but in the days following the visit to Vivian’s family, we determined that our first priority and short term focus will be to help give a voice to Vivian's family, to invite people who come across this story to help be a part of the support network for this family by praying and by helping us gather the funds needed to send a family gift to Vivian's grandmother via Compassion.  We can send a maximum of $1000 as a family gift, but are hoping to send at least $400.

If a few dozen of us give $10, or even $5, we can make a significant long term impact on this family’s well-being by helping this grandmother get a source of income established so she can not only feed her family and meet their needs, but perhaps eventually move out of this area and into a safer, cleaner place for her family to live.  She is determined, hardworking and such a strong woman.  She will rise above this, she just needs a little extra help to get there.

Our family would like to start by contributing the first $50 toward a family gift.  Beth has also committed $100 towards a family gift.  If you would like to join us, no amount is too small to make an impact.  Our Paypal address is or you can contact us for more information or options through this email address as well.  Please mark “Vivian” in the subject line.

We hope to follow up on Vivian's family the next time we travel to Ghana, and until then, we look forward to hearing updates from Beth, her sponsor.