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You Are Welcome!

I only have a few days left in my village and am feeling a bit pensive. The last week I have felt particularly embraced by the local community and it is sad to say goodbye. As I walk down the road, there are many elders, men, women and children who I now know that stop to greet me. Ghanaians are big into greetings. Instead of saying, “Hello,” they say “Welcome,” a very charming and Ghanaian greeting. They love to shake hands and the handshake ends by grasping the other person’s middle finger and snapping each other’s fingers.

A friend and I purchase school uniforms, shoes, toys, school supplies an diapers and visit the orphanage.  As soon as the children spot us, they start yelling, jumping up and down and run down the road to hug us. We open the first package of toys (13 used stuffed animals for <$8). This is the biggest crowd-pleaser, even for the teenage girls, and they are all screaming with joy! The other big hit is the notebooks, pencils and crayons. Ghana is crazy about Obama and the notebook covers have photos of President Obama and the Obama family. They want us to write on the notebooks, so I write enthusiastic phrases like, “You always make me smile,” and “Be a good boy in school.” Next, they ask me to draw pictures in their notebooks, like a tree, airplane or house. And then they proceed to duplicate my drawing – so cute!

Last weekend, I went to Accra, the capital of Ghana. It is big, crowded and expensive. In Ho, the city near my town, it always costs 25 cents to take a taxi anywhere in the city. You don’t even need to ask the taxi for the price of the fare since it’s always the same. Granted, it’s a share-taxi so you pick and drop people off along the way. In Accra, taxis were $3 to $11 which is a steep increase. I’d made hotel reservations in advance and when I open the door was a bit disappointed by the dismal room. But I am more alarmed when I realize they haven’t changed the sheets. When my friend finds a used condom in her garbage we decide to leave. It’s hard to find a mid-range hotel in Accra since the city is designed for business professionals staying in $250+ hotels or budget hotels with rooms that make me want to cry. So I blow my budget and splurge on $55 rooms the entire weekend. It is definitely worth the money.

The hotel owner tells me about a witch doctor down the road. I am immediately intrigued and we go for a quick visit. It’s a full moon, and we wind through a maze of houses and onto the beach. My stereotypes were surprised to meet a young 36-year old man, instead of a decrepit old man. His name is Eleven-Eleven and I ask him about the various objects. He explains about love potions and how to win court cases. Afterwards, we sit outside by the beach chatting. I start to doubt his authenticity when he keeps proposing to me (my fifth proposal in Ghana) and his hand starts inching up my knee. Later, I hope he’s not casting a love spell on me!

A friend from Seattle is in Accra and invites me to attend a Pan-African Cervical Cancer Conference. The conference is also hosted by the Forum of African First Ladies Against Breast and Cervical Cancer. It was a star-studded event and included the First Ladies, Queens and Princesses from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Niger, Swaziland and Zambia. I am so ill-informed on the issues that I didn’t even realize HPV causes cervical cancer. Eighty-five percent of cervical cancer deaths occur in the developing world, with 20 percent in Africa. Due to the lack of prevention, screening and stigma, most women wait until they are at very advanced stages and die from preventable deaths.  There is a dizzying array of information presented by NGOs, academics, governments and clinicians. The most impressive project is occurring in Uganda by PATH. Many countries are piloting prevention and screening activities, but are challenged to get women to participate due to stigma. In Uganda, women are collecting self-samples that don’t have to be refrigerated for up to two weeks, and PATH has developed an affordable battery-operated device that tests the samples for HPV. Due to the labor market, it’s challenging to recruit and retain doctors and nurses, and the project doesn’t even require skilled medical staff.

This weekend, I leave my village to venture out for one month of travelling in Ghana. During me first week in Ghana, I’d contemplated changing my plane ticket to leave Ghana as soon as my volunteer work was completed. But now I’m excited to travel and experience more of this lovely country.

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