Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cape Coast, Ghana

“Do you really want to do this?” Michael asks.  He knows that I hang on to images.  The Hanoi Hilton.  Treblinka.  Hiroshima wiped me out for a week.  I couldn’t eat, close my eyes. Man's inhumanity quite literally makes me sick.


So, we take a cab to one of the castles that housed dungeons that kept male, female and children captive, 200 to a room the size of your average subway (only without the windows, the flush toilets, or the fresh veggies), for periods of a few days to 3 months until the imprisoned Africans passed down unlit stone passageways to The Door of No Return and onto small boats similar to the fishing boats still in use, to ships that would take them through the middle passage to North and South America. It is the same one that the Obamas visited when in Ghana.

“Africans were stronger,” our guide explains.  “They were more able to survive harsh working conditions on the plantations rather then simply enslaving the indigenous peoples.”

I slip and almost fall as we descend into the men’s dungeon.  The floors are slippery, a muddy looking covering over the cobblestone floors as thick as asphalt.  This, she explains, is the caked residual of blood, vomit and feces from the nineteenth century.  I feel nauseous and disoriented by the darkness as she switches off the light for less than a minute. 

In this picture, a young Dane contemplates the magnitude of what we are experiencing and the guilt that all of European descent must bear.

Directly above the cries from the dungeons stood (stands) canons pointed out at sea and a church, where the overseers prayed for peace and redemption.  A trap door is in the entryway so worshipers could look down and check on the status of the imprisoned before taking communion. Redemption indeed.  Were the overseers clinging to guns and religion on this rock thinking they were worshiping on some high ground?  I stand there trying to pull logical thoughts together in the blasting wind. Later she takes us down to visit The Door of No Return, which she unlatches and swings open.  Our little tour group steps out into the blinding sun to imagine what it might have felt like for the departing prisoners of slavery.

Our guide is a soft-spoken volunteer who tells us about the five graves in the open yard of the castle.  These were not for slaves that succumbed to the horrors, those folks were either buried in a mass grave or thrown to the sharks.  Instead, this is the final resting place for four white guys who mostly succumbed to malaria along side the body of one woman.  She was the wife of the head overseer, who arrived at Cape Coast only to find out her honorable husband was getting it on with a local.  There are three theories why she died. 1. She found out her husband had been unfaithful and did herself in.  2. She too succumbed to malaria.  3. Her husband's mistress poisoned her.  “Which do you think?” the guide asks me.

“Murder.” I reply.  Our kindly guide does not agree, She thinks malaria or maybe the woman died by her own hand. 

Later we have a few minutes to ourselves.  She is slight, young, leading our tour with compassion and exquisite detail. A striking beauty with her braids piled high on the back of her head.  She is well educated, her English impeccable.

“I would think the locals would have wanted to kill all the Europeans, they were so wretched to them,” I speculate.  She has already told us how some greedy chieftains had been complicit, trading their enemies and even members of their own tribes for payments by the European slavers.  She patiently reminds me that the Europeans and their clients in the Americas were not acting alone.

“I don’t care,” I say.  “I would have blamed the Europeans and wanted to kill them all.” 

She reaches up to gently take a blond strand of windblown hair that has attached itself to my angry lip and tries to tuck it behind my ear.  She speaks to me of the power of forgiveness.  She says that it was the Europeans who brought Christianity to Africa and for that Ghanaians must always be grateful for that gift.

I have always thought the missionary movement in Africa to be an epic case of presumptive arrogance, but I try and see it from her side, especially since her side comes from such a loving place.

Tonight as I write this I am still trying to digest all that we saw there: the overseer’s bowed bedroom with 14 windows to catch the cross breezes from all directions, the special dungeon with no windows for rebel men who were locked up and usually suffocated within two days, to the special dungeon for women who would not submit themselves to the sexual whims of the guards.  They didn’t suffocate those women, just starved them and kept them cooped up for years as a model lesson for incoming females.  I am digesting, but I am not so sick as I might have been.  I keep thinking of the deep walnut colored eyes of that young woman speaking to me about how we need forgiveness in our hearts in order to progress.

“We must forgive others of course.  But it is just as important to forgive ourselves.  This is how we go forward.”

This picture is from the castle looking north, bare shore similar to what the departing slaves might have seen back then.  It is not a friendly port, but an uneven shoreline with aggressive waves and a vicious undertow.   

The next picture is taken looking out The Door of No Return to the south, onto today's vibrant community of fishermen, tangles of nets and waiting boats.  In order to get the boats back into shore, men must pull them from the shore, tug-of-rope style.  

We used this photo in our writing at the AISA conference and one teacher observed that these people are all living on the edge, trying to subsist on what they pull from an increasingly debilitated ocean.  When I asked stupid question number 1,067, "what is the unemployment rate here in Ghana?" a teacher's response was, "it depends on what you consider employment."  Are these people employed?  If you take coconuts from trees and try to sell them on the side of the road in order to buy a day's meal, is that a job?  This is the way many or most eke out a living in Ghana.  I remember how over lunch our red eyed cab driver told us that his father is a fisherman and how he had been up all the night before helping him.  How his mother pounds grain and sells it beside the road.  How he took my left overs from lunch home in a bag.

It takes a few days to notice that as you walk down the street, through the markets, you see very very few old people.  For the most part, they don't exist here.  

I will remember the sights, the heat, and the kindness and good humor of the people of Ghana. We were made to feel very welcome. I will remember the close quarters of those dungeons and our guide's hand brushing my cheek and her observation that forgiveness is always a component of progress.

Thank you to Lincoln Community School and particularly Rhona Polonsky for helping us plan this side trip.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Inside the American International School of Abuja

The road to the American School of Abuja is dusty and hot, but inside is is very cool.  The teachers, the kids, the parents.  We arrived a half-day late due to the misconnection in Lagos and went straight from the airport to write with sixth graders in the library, eating Thai food in the car.  Take out from the school.  Unless you are an international teacher, it may be hard to imagine a school with Thai (or Indian, or Lebanese, yes all on the same day) take out.  But, well, there you have it.  International palettes are all served, right along with hot dogs and chips (those would be fries).

Michael connected with the upper school and I rotated between elementary classrooms for the following two days.  We wrote about rhinos, elephants, recess, and goodness.

We held up our eye cameras in Kindergarten, because poetry is a snapshot!  It is not a whole movie.

Love this from the first grade.  Read this aloud like we did.   Go ahead.  Read it again; draw out that last line...Yum.

Good is a stack of presents
A crowd cheering
Chocolate ice cream with sprinkles
Swimming on a hot day
Fried chicken

On Friday afternoon (Friday afternoon?) we did a 2 hour PD session with teachers.  What troopers (FRIDAY AFTERNOON!)  One teacher went back and adapted one of our lessons to make the following poem with her pre-schoolers, most of which are new English language learners.  This is the greatest compliment a presenter can get, teachers actually putting a suggested lesson to good use.  For a link to more information about the school, check out the weekly newsletter compiled by the tireless and creative Rita Moltzan:

          Snappy Shapes

Cookie, donut, orange, pizza

Round round round

Ball, button, plate,

Round round round

Round table, round clock

Circles, circles all around.

By Preschool Red, AISA

It was a fabulous visit.  Many many thanks to all the teachers, the receptive, creative kids, the vibrant Head of School, Amy Lizoewulu, Principals Lyle Moltzan and Deanna Emond, thanks to Teri Campbell for the pictures and of course thanks to Rita who really knows how to make a library the heart of a school.

Outside The American School of Abjua, Nigeria

Imagine that it is four days before a big holiday and you want to feed your family a traditional meal of goat and beef.  You are the head of a large family; everyone is counting on you.  It must be a big feast, a celebration, and your income comes from a bead shop the size of a master bathroom in the US.  Only four days to the holiday.  Now imagine that you will need seven goats and a cow to feed your family because you have three wives and seventeen children.  Now, imagine that out of the clouds stumble a pair of western women, an American and a Canadian, giggling like school girls, and between them spend the equivalent of almost $100 on beads and two table decorations (pictured below).  Imagine how big your smile would be and you will begin to understand our friend in the picture. 

I will never sit down for a meal at my table without thinking of our bead seller’s table and how we all benefited by the magic of our encounter. For the second picture, he insisted on putting on his shades.  

Big love to Rita Moltzan, her husband (and upper school principal) Lyle, who I met and worked with years ago in Sumatra, when their sons Taylor and Jordan were smaller than the monkeys on the roof of their home.  Thank you boys for bunking together so we could camp our in one of the bedrooms.  Thanks to William for catching up the laundry, the drivers and screen setter uppers and badge checkers.  So much goes into one of these visits.  And Director Amy, whose hands on leadership touches all levels at the school.

Rita was the ring leader behind our entire African tour and the words “thank you” are too puny to begin to describe my gratitude for her enthusiasm, generosity, and friendship.  But I will say them anyway.  Thank you.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Outside American International School Lagos

The introduction to Lagos is either a laugh riot or a maniacal debacle, depending on your level of jet lag and patience for paths to no where.  The first passport check is as you get off the plane.  Some guy at the end of the jetway flipped open my passport, stared intently at a blank page and then let me enter the airport.  Then we proceeded to the real passport check line, where no one follows the logical inclination to queue up and take turns.  Instead there is pushing and angling, with people offering bribes (dash) to be escorted to the head of the line.

We were finally greeted by official number one, who actually looked at our paperwork and declared we may not enter because we did not have a phone number.  Cue the first power outage.  The entire place goes dark as a cave and erupts in screams and moans.  We experience two more of these outages before we get out of the airport, an apt introduction to the realities of life in Lagos.

Michael dug up a phone number on his IPad, which we uses as a flash light.  We then snakes around back of this guy to get in another line (more pushing, shoving, maneuvering) whereupon we waited for official number 2 to examine the work of official number 1.  Some around us bypass this step (see above, re: bribes).  Then we go into a roped in pen where we wait to be summoned before official number 3, who actually has a computer to scan our passports and let us into the baggage claim area.  Our hosting librarian Kay Riley cannot believe that we accomplish this in less than 45 minutes, some kind of a land sea record.

Outside of the airport, more chaos.  A man comes up to us and offers to call our contact on his cell.  He calls Kay who is waiting with another teacher in a bus in the river of taillights we have seen from the air. You know those nice little cell phone lots they have at US airports?  Yeah.  No.  Cars wait in the same pushing and shoving lines that exist inside the airport. When we finally connect with Kay, she dashes the cell phone guy, the guy who lifts our bags into the van and the police officer overseeing everything.  I thought the guy with the gun and the uniform might be there to make sure that no one gouged us, but no.  He was mostly waiting for his dash.

What we learned getting out of the airport is that while it is illegal to take wooden masks out of the country, a subtly passed bribe to the screeners at the xray machine and they are willing to overlook anything suspicious in your hand luggage.  This is either welcome or distressing news.  Depending, I suppose.  We paid about $6 to get some masks through security.  Hopefully the rules are different if travelers are carrying anything dangerous, otherwise everything may be subject to what amounts to a TSA tax. Like the guy outside the door to the airport with the cell phone and the kids who offer to carry your bags in the market for a little dash, these are just people trying to get by in a country that has an unemployment rate north of 50%.

On our final day at school, we are able to make it to Lekki market which sells everything from socks to bananas to masks and jewelry.  The path into the market was sloppy muddy, the stalls hardly more than clapped together wood pallets.  Stacked inside were vibrant fabrics, intricate baskets, and polished carvings.  Hampered by airline weight restrictions, we carefully chose a few items to bring home.  Many many thanks to Nicky and Amanda for taking us to the market.

For all the scary stories you read about on the news, I can honestly say, we enjoyed our stay.  The locals we met were for the most part friendly and helpful.  However, if folks back home really want to know what it is like to have little to no infrastructure in a nation, I would recommend a stay in Lagos.

Inside American International School of Lagos

The school is an island on an island.  Surrounded on all sides by walls with rolled razor wire on top, the school sits on Victoria Island, part of the seamless sprawl of 20+ million people that is Lagos. Teachers live within the school walls in an apartment building actually attached to the school.

I began with a single poem for the elementary crowd and then joined Michael for an hour-long assembly for grades 6 through 12.  The kids were responsive and attentive, the faculty present and engaged.  Afterwards we heard from administrative types that there was some trepidation in advance.  Apparently we were performing on the scorched earth where a few other presenters had crashed and burned. But those speakers must not have been poets, because we were clearly before fans. Through the rest of the visit, Michael met with the upper school while I had a jaw dropping experience with the gradeschoolers.

AISL is truly an international school, with almost as many nationalities represented in each classroom as there are kids occupying the desks.  In advance of our visit Michael and I had emailed 60 poems to  for teachers to use in familiarizing the kids with our work.  One of the poems I sent was a poem about brothers that reads:


My brother is
a redwood,
wedged between my toes.

My brother is
a basketball,
jammed up in my nose.

My brother is
a scratchy coat
cut too small to fit.

My brother's
a mosquito
just begging to be hit.

My brother is
a chain saw,
that once started whines and roars.

My brother is
the chicken pox.
He cannot be ignored.

I mentioned in a foot note in the pack of poems that due to some oversight on my part, I had never written a poem about sisters and invited a student to help close that gap.  The collaboration by the two writers below has delightfully balanced this scale and is representative of a stack of poems we received in response to our advance poems.  Seems as if sibling friction is truly an international phenomena.

My Sister,

My sister is a boogie launched inside my nose,
My sister is a monster doll playing with my clothes.
My sister is a sneaky brat who always wants to join.
My sister is a little rat waiting to be shown.
My sister is a rotten egg waiting to be cracked.
My sister is a troll making me look fat.
But after all my sister, my little crabby sister,
she is not a monster now a troll.  
She is my little tiny sister and 
that's a fact.

And here is another, this one heavily illustrated by a team of artists who also took the suggestion to improve upon the poem if they choose, in this case adding cakes to the candy.  Why not?

Thank you Kay Riley and the library staff, Bick and Garth (and families), who hosted us for dinner at their apartments and for all the kindnesses and smiles of the students.  I will tell you straight up, the school was a lot more welcoming on the other side of that steel door and rolled wire fencing than it looks.  We were sad to say goodbye to our new friends in Lagos.