At the time, I didn’t realize it was intense . That's partly because of the easy-going guys at Disaster Volunteers of Ghana, the nonprofit organization that sponsored us for a week in the village of Abutia Agodeke in the Volta Region, near the city of Ho. (Please follow the link to check out the huge variety of projects they sponsor.) We connected with them through GlobeAware, a US-based organization that arranges "voluntourism" projects all over the world.
DiVOG has been active since 2002, although Richard Yinkah came up with the idea in 1997. The “disaster” in the title is not flood or earthquake, or even famine. It’s a kid going without an education, a village without drinking water, an orphanage without enough food or beds. What an amazing concept.
The DiVOG guys outside their office in Ho: from left, Robert Tornu, Richard Yinkah, Bright (whose last name I never caught), and Mypa Buckner, who's in charge of PR and administration. DJ Ankah was off on another project when the photo was taken.
Rather than swooping in with a bunch of white people to build something, smile brightly, and leave, DiVOG requires that a village provide materials, work alongside the visitors, house them, feed them, and generally welcome them in. It’s a remarkable idea, and it works: According to the organization’s web site, some 700 volunteers have helped to build 12 schools, 12 orphanage latrines, and 20 school latrines, and have been placed in classrooms, orphanages, and even medical clinics. (A complete list of achievements is here.)
One reason it works is that Richard found staff members just as committed to community development as he is. Our chief contact was Robert Tornu, director of project and volunteer management, and he pretty much blew our socks off. We had these amazing dinnertime chats--neither Lisa nor I has ever had so much fun talking political science. We were humbled at how much he knew about the US, and fascinated by what he could tell us about Ghana, its politics, and it struggles.
The product of a village himself, Robert lives and breathes activism and empowerment, to the detriment of his personal life. He never turns it off—escorting us back in Accra (the capital city) after our week in Agodeke, he sat in the front seat of our taxi so he could debate presidential politics with the driver. When he was in the village, he was constantly surrounded by a group of young men, delivering a pep talk.
Our team of guardian angels also included DJ, who is in charge of building construction but also drove us and escorted us on our various excursions away from the village. (We went to a waterfall, a market, and a kente weaving village.) DJ is a talented stand-up comedian in the local language of Ewe, apparently--he had 'em rolling in the aisles during our introductory meeting with the village. I'd give my eye teeth to know what he said--probably "you would not believe how long it took these old yavoos to get the name of this village right. Don't expect much."
"Yavoo" is the Ewe word for those of us of European descent. Literally, it means "tricky dog." Courtly Ghanaians will either deny that that's the literal meaning, or will explain earnestly that having a smart dog is a very good thing. Right.
Our third compadre was Bright, a barber by trade who has been seduced by the siren song of community development. He superintended our work project--to our amusement and, briefly, dismay, this turned out to be painting pictures on the interior walls of Agodeke’s new school, which had been built by volunteers and villagers over the autumn and early winter. (“You do know we’re word people, right?” Lisa kept saying.) (Lisa is a philosophy professor at Gustavus-Adolphus College.)
The people of Agodeke were polite about our artistic skills. They fed us incredible food, danced with us, tried to teach us to drum and cook and carry water on our heads, hugged us, and laughed with us. I can’t say enough about them, so I’ll resort to pictures:
|This is our welcoming parade. Drummers and dancers came to our house to escort us to the opening ceremony for our week. Village elders told us we were part of the village now, and we should be sure to let them know if anyone was rude, which seemed unlikely even then.|
|Here's the old school, which used to shut down during the rains. There are two rainy seasons: April to July, and September through November. You can see the new school in the background.|
|Here's the new school, which DiVOG volunteers built and painted last fall. I think the last group of volunteers before us painted the designs on the outside in December.|
|We did some teaching every day, although I had a hard time figuring out what everyone knew. The younger class, whom I was teaching, seemed to range in age from five to eight, maybe even ten.|
|Yet again, the yavoo makes a fool of herself.|