Saturday, May 21, 2011

Royal Seed School

The Royal Seed School is, in reality, not a school, but an orphanage. It is located about 5 miles north of Kasoa (kah-sue-wah), which is just west of Accra. Jennifer, whose husband, Michael, is a geologist for Newmont, introduced Michele and I to the orphanage in my first couple of weeks.

Jennifer has been visiting the orphanage for three years, and my first trip out to the school included a number of stories about the history of the facility and how it came to be. So, let’s start with that, and hopefully I’ll get the story somewhat right.

Naomi runs the orphanage and is the founder of the facility. Several years ago she left an abusive marriage. At some point, she decided she wanted to help other young women learn a trade so they wouldn’t have to remain in a bad relationship or rely on the men in their lives. She taught them basic skills, such as sewing and cooking. As the women became more proficient, they left the villages and moved into Accra where they could put their skills to work. Unfortunately, many of them left their young children behind with Naomi as they couldn’t financially afford to take them.

At one point, Naomi had 15 children in her care and decided to approach a social services agency to see if she could get some financial assistance. Well, when they found out she had 15 children in her home, they informed her that she was, essentially, running an orphanage. And, voila…the Royal Seed School was founded.

Once Social Services determined she was operating an orphanage, they started dropping children on her doorstep, as did the police and family members. The population of her facility continued to grow, with very little money.

Another cultural lesson is necessary at this juncture. There are only two state-run orphanages, and just a handful of private ones. These are the only facilities that can qualify for regional or national funding. Private organizations, like Unicef or Save the Children, require orphanages to be both registered and certified in order to apply for any substantial funding. I may have this backwards, but I think you’ll get the drift. There are about 200 orphanages that are registered, but only the two state-run orphanages and the few private ones are certified. In order to become certified, orphanages must meet minimum standards (i.e., Unicef standards); one of which is one adult for every child. When you have 120 students, like Naomi has, this is practically impossible as they operate primarily on volunteers. The facility must also have a certain number of buildings, including a kitchen, restrooms, bathing facilities, dorms, etc.

One of the state run orphanages is located in Osu, a suburb of Accra. Last fall a journalist went undercover into the orphanage and the result was evidently not good. Jennifer didn’t expand on the story, and frankly, I didn’t really want to know the details. I do know that much of the donations that were coming in were not being used in the best interests of the children, but rather the workers were benefitting. The result was the Ghanaian government cracking down on orphanages (not a bad thing, on the surface). In addition, the government launched the Care Reform Initiative to discourage the setting up of new orphanages in favor of encouraging community based care and support .

Historically, extended families took care of children whose parents had died, but when so many orphanages began to open, it was often more practical to take the children to the facility. In this way they knew that: 1) the child would be fed; 2) they wouldn’t be a financial burden to the rest of the family; and 3) they would likely be educated. The result is that many of the children who are now in the orphanages are not actual orphans; it’s just that their families do not feel they can provide for them. The government is trying to change the pattern, and is closing orphanages. The children are left in the middle. The orphanages that are closing are simply sending the children to the orphanages that remain open, putting an even greater burden on them.

With all of that being said, Naomi currently has approximately 120 children in her care at any one time. It takes about 2,000 cedis a month just to feed the children, and their diet does not include meat. They eat lots of rice, bread, and plaintains. The children are relatively clean, considering they are living in the middle of Africa in the dirt. Their teeth are unusually white and straight!

So, with that, Michele, her kids, Jennifer and I headed to the Royal Seed School with Loco as our driver. Jennifer warned us that school was on break, and not all 120 children would be at the facility because if a child has some family still living, the family is required to allow the child to come home during all school breaks. She told us that it would likely be mass chaos as there is no structure in the day when school is not in session. When we arrived at the school gate, my first glimpse of the compound was that of children dancing, some sitting around talking, and boys chasing each other. When the children saw us with a basket of oranges, one of the older boys quickly came over to take it to the kitchen to be cut up. We also brought some rice and beans for their supply. Michele and her kids brought a few soccer balls and jump ropes, and the kids anxiously started grabbing at the items. (Imagine you trying to get to the toys before all of your brothers and sisters!) The toys were popular items and the older boys absolutely loved the soccer balls. Tori took off with the little girls to jump rope. In retrospect, I have not seen any of these items in my subsequent visits.

Jennifer took us around the facility and we were introduced to a few of the volunteers. I was actually surprised at how few adults there were. Four or five of them were younger, Caucasian adults from the U.S. I have yet to figure out how they found their way to the orphanage, and by what organizations they were sponsored, if any. Their answers are always vague, when I ask them questions. Regardless, the volunteers appeared to basically be holding the smaller children and babies.

The first time I visited I took my camera. Many of the children gathered around me as they wanted to see pictures of themselves. I took LOTS and LOTS. The boys were really funny because they wanted their pictures to either be about them being silly (making faces) or cool (arms crossed, eyebrows lifted). One little boy, Kofi, who I would guess is about 10 years old, was sort of mean to the other kids – kept pushing them away and I told him I wasn’t going to take his picture if he was being mean to others. While I wouldn’t say he changed immediately, he did respond to me and backed off of the other kids. Eventually, he came up behind me and whispered into my ear, “Show me a picture of your house.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have any pictures, but I told him that I would take some and show them to him the next time I came back. I have not seen him since, but it may just be that he’s lost in the 120+ kids!

That first trip was quite an eye opener for me. I have never visited an orphanage, even in the U.S., so really wasn’t sure what to expect. The compound, for lack of better words, includes some rooms for schools, an office, a computer lab, a storage room, kitchen, bathrooms, showers, two story girls dorm as well as a two-story boys dorm. Outside there is a water pump; although I’m not sure if it’s water that the children can drink. There is a porch area outside of the boys dorm, and this is where the babies were kept on both my first and second trip to the orphanage. On my third trip, I asked where they were and I was told “they are in school.” I’m not sure what a 4 month old is going to learn in school with 5 and 6 years old….and never actually saw them in the classrooms.

The compound has a few scraggly dogs and right now a new litter of puppies. They originally got the dogs for protection. At night there are no lights. A few weeks ago some people came into the compound and the dogs alerted the volunteers. Unfortunately, the thieves got away with about 200 chickens that are held in pens behind the buildings. Can you imagine? Stealing from an orphanage!!! There aren’t many people lower than that!

Last week when I went to the orphanage, all of the kids were in the classrooms. Except my buddy, Yakamo (Yak-uh-moe). Yakamo (spelling?) is about two years old and is always looking for an adult to hold him. He is so cute! There were some girls (20 years oldish) by the fire getting ready to cook some lunch and I asked them why Yakamo wasn’t in school like the rest of the kids and they answered, “He’s stubborn.” I watched one of the girls pick up this huge 10 gallon plastic container that read “vegetable oil” and pour it into one of the large pots on the open fire. It was unlike any vegetable oil I’ve ever seen as it was a dark orange color. On the ledge next to me was a big bowl of what appeared to be tomato sauce, and the flies were bombarding the liquidy substance! The tomato sauce was added to the vegetable oil and the girl had a 5 ft. wood pole that she used to stir the concoction. When I asked what they were cooking, I was told, “red soup.”

About some of the kids….
Jonathan is the oldest orphan, and he appears to be in charge in terms of the children. He’s a handsome young man, about 16 or 17 years old. I think he is scheduled to attend high school next year; one of five who will be going to a private high school, if enough funds are raised. It costs approximately $1,000 USD for a child to attend high school as they are also boarded at the school.

The first time I went to the orphanage there was this sad little boy, Joshua . He had just arrived a couple of weeks before. I would guess his age at about four. He clung to Michele, and she carried him around for what seemed like hours. At one point, I was sitting on a bench and he came over and just stood between my legs. He looked so scared and alone. I took his picture several times, and was finally able to get a smile out of him. Unfortunately, like many of the younger children, he has a very limited English vocabulary. Whenever he wants something, he taps my leg and points.
One little boy was found in a river, and apparently he had been there for quite some time; about three days. Because of the water damage, his skin just peeled off, and it was evidently a very painful process for him to recover. He is deaf, and the doctors believe that is a result of his being submerged for so long.

Michele’s son, Stone, decided he would show the children a magic trick. Stone is just 11 years old himself. He has a little contraption whereby you put cedi bills inside before you demonstrate the trick. Then, he takes a blank piece of paper and rolls it into the machine, and voila….on the other side, out comes money! The kids thought this was incredible and kept asking him to do it again…and again…and again. They wanted him to leave the machine. I really think most of the kids really thought he was making money, and if that was the case, why couldn’t he just leave it with them and then all of their money troubles would be over.

A couple of times we have stopped at a market and picked up some fruit to take with us. The second time we took some watermelon, and was a fruit that the kids had never tried, as it is expensive in relation to pineapples, mangos, and oranges. They LOVED the watermelon. Many of the kids would come up to me, tap my leg, and point to the watermelon, wanting more!

When I arrived at the orphanage last week, school was in session. After milling around with Yakamo and the cooks, I went into one of the classrooms where Jennifer was attempting a short lesson on dinosaurs. The problem was that these kids had no idea what a dinosaur was or looked like. Jennifer was trying to draw a picture up on the chalkboard, but you could tell the kids didn’t really get it. I was sitting in the back row, observing, and then pulled out my Blackberry and pulled up a picture of a dinosaur. The boys, in particular, were fascinated, and wanted to know if I had ever seen one. They simply had no concept of the lesson.

After showing them pictures of a variety of dinosaurs, I then got requests for pictures of other animals – zebra, horse, elephant, and a hawk. THEN, they wanted to know if I knew who Michael Jackson was and if I had a picture of him. I found one of those, and then they wanted to see a video of him dancing. I tried to pull one up, but the connection was simply too slow for that. I had 10-12 kids surrounding me, and it was getting pretty warm. When I mentioned it was hot, this one boy made everyone get away and then he started fanning me. It made me laugh!

I did wonder why these kids had never seen a picture of a dinosaur since they have a computer lab that was donated by Newmont. I’m pretty sure they have internet access (at least the office does). The teachers are local Ghanaians, and basically write things up on the chalkboard and the students copy it on their paper. VERY basic education, and frankly, it appeared that there was very little learning going on, including copying!

Adoption is not culturally acceptable in Ghana, which leaves these children with little chance of being adopted. Jennifer told Michele and I a story about a friend of hers from Canada (Danielle, I think) who was interested in adopting twin girls that arrived at the orphanage a couple of years ago. The children’s mother had died in childbirth and the father was quite elderly. A son from a previous marriage attended the funeral and determined the children were not being well taken care of as they were obviously malnourished. He took the children to the orphanage when they were about a week or two old.

Jennifer took pictures of the babies and sent them to Danielle, who quickly told her she and her husband wanted to adopt the babies. While the Ghanaian government quickly approved the adoption, getting the Canadian government approval was much more difficult as they try to make sure the children are protected. In other words, they are more proactive in deterring child trafficking. Danielle brought her five year old child and her mother to Ghana to begin the adoption process. She immediately went to the orphanage and picked up the babies.

The Canadian government required a birth certificate, which seems simple, right? Well, these children were born in a remote village in the northern region of Ghana. There was no birth certificate. Being desperate, she found someone who was willing to produce a birth certificate, but when she presented it to the Canadian government, they found several obvious mistakes (dates, etc.). This threw up red flags, and likely extended the time in which it took to adopt the children. After one full year, Danielle and her husband were able to adopt the babies. She spent the entire year in Ghana, sending her mother and son back after a few months. Her husband and son flew to Ghana for Christmas,

After more than a year, the babies were officially adopted by Danielle and her husband. Living in Accra is not cheap. During the year long process, she and her husband put thousands of dollars into the adoption. They almost lost their house in Canada as they took out a second mortgage. I was told that the process would likely be easier for couples from America as the U.S. doesn’t have the strict child trafficking law like Canada.

Now, if you’re thinking this is one of the saddest stories ever, I want you to think about something. The Royal Seed School is one of the more fortunate schools. They have a woman in charge dedicated to what she’s doing, and who is an aggressive fundraiser. According to Jennifer, the orphanage has made tremendous progress in the three years in which she has been involved. There are many, many other orphanages where children are living in much worse conditions. The children I’ve seen are well taken care. One of the primary things lacking in their lives is the personal touch of another human being, and at this point in my journey in Africa….that’s what I’m able to give.

(More pictures will follow once I get back to Ghana.)

1 comment:

  1. I hope you pack a lunch when you visit because that "red soup" sounds horrible!

    Are there many discipline problems with so many kids and so few adults?

    I bet they love when you come to visit with fresh fruit and Michael Jackson!
    So funny :-)