Monthly Archives: August 2007

Be Prepared

boyscout

To prepare for my trip to Africa I corresponded with experienced travelers from couchsurfing for advice. While I surfed the web for information, I stumbled on pixelatedimage. This is the blog/gallery of humanitarian-photojournalist David duChemin. I sent him a “cold-call” email and he provided me with invaluable information. As an experienced traveler and incredible photographer he’s an inspiration for a wannabe like me. I hope I can live up to the help he has given me.

I also met (via email) the director of a school in the Volta Region. We provided mutual assistance to eachother. He agreed to let me use his information for my visa application and I had loads of surplus boys’ clothes, books and school supplies for his organization(here). This trip was shaping up pretty well.

I had to familiarize myself with not only Ghana, but with the various health concerns that come with traveling to an exotic locale. After getting innoculations for yellow fever and Hep A, and a supply of antimalarial pills (I chose Malarone) I felt bullet-proof. Lonely Planet provided the travel guides and I quickly became a self-taught expert on Ghana and surrounding West Africa. Heck, now you could hand me a blank map of Africa and I’ll fill in all the countries by heart- but I digress.

I went on a shopping spree at my local REI. Lightweight clothing, pretreated with mosquito repellant, special socks, towels, bedlining…everything I could think of without weighing myself down. Besides my tech gear; camera, laptop and iPod, and all kinds of batteries and adapters, I wanted to travel relatively light. The checked bags were filled with donations, so my carry-on and backback were all I had.

During my research of the culture I would be interacting with in Ghana, I exchanged emails with many people. Ex-pats from the US living there, charitable org directors and locals. I saw a deeply touching article in the New York Times about child slavery in Ghana. Besides making me angry, I was compelled to find out more. I sent emails and made some calls. Then I saw a follow-up article a few months later. Eight children were rescued as a result of the efforts of a woman in Missouri. That was amazing. We exchanged emails and I obtained additional info about the children. This article was proof to me there is hope for their future, and this article about their “first” Christmas is very heartfelt.

(My opinion: I’m not a fan though of the frequent use of terms like “former slaves” and “ex-slaves” as descriptions of these kids. Nor do I get any warm fuzzies from,”…and the former little slaves do not even know about the good God they are praying to, but they like Him. They are ready to praise Him, because He seems to be the reason they are sitting there with clean, new clothing and a full plate of food.” I’m just not a proponent of the caveat – “saved your life, filled your belly, now here’s the dogma for desert”.)  

Another meeting that had a huge impact on me was meeting Patricia and her brother, Fawaz. It would be an understatement to say with their help I was able to know more about Ghana than most any tourist could. More about that when my story gets there.

Patricia is serving in the Ghanaian Army (just now finishing up a 6 month tour of duty in Liberia as part of the African Union peacekeeping forces). Fawaz is an IT student and became my right-hand-man. I was welcomed like family and besides exploring greater Accra, we traveled to Kumasi, Cape Coast, Aburi Gardens and Kakum National Park. 

But this entry is about preparation. As I mentioned, my primary role is being dad. I needed someone to care for my sons while I was gone. My brother in Wisconsin accepted a mostly-expenses paid trip out of the cold and 5 of the 10 days were covered. When he had to leave, I enlisted my 25 yr old stepson and after schedules were copied, school routes set, fridge filled and Power of Atty forms notarized, it was all systems go.

 When all was said and done I had…. obtained a visa, all innoculations and documentation, prepared legal docs, made hardcopies and virtual copies, packed light and tight, studied my destination thoroughly, made contingent plans, and then, I let go. This was not going to be a stressful trip that’s for sure.     

Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast castle

If you had a chance to check out “The Images” page of this site, thank you. 

I’ve had the greatest pleasure this year accessing not only legendary performers and a country’s birthday celebration, but also the deeply profound experience of visiting Cape Coast Castle.

To stand in the slave dungeons, to walk through the “door of no return”, were experiences that defy description. How does one begin to describe the impact that a place like this had on the history of the world? It’s beyond dank, depressing, sad, and terrifying. I went through the tour with a lump in my throat, a knot in my gut and watery eyes. Our knowledgeable and friendly Fanti guide displayed utmost sincerity, dignity, reverance and professionalism to each member of the group that went beyond his youth.

Unfortunately I will also remember some not-so-welcoming glares from a couple of the other tourists in my group. Except for me and my Ghanaian friend Fawaz, our group appeared to be made up entirely of African-American tourists. I guess I became a lightening rod for the anger and anguish they were undoubtably feeling. It hit me but I can understand it, given the emotional journey this is for people.

As much as I hate to differentiate, I am what you’d call white. Maybe I was the only “Obruni” there that day. No matter, I recommend EVERYBODY visit this place. It shouldn’t matter if your (recent) ancestry is Euro or Akan. This is a scar we all carry in some way. Too many genocidal tragedies have occurred on our watch. The holocaust, Yugoslavia, Nigeria (Biafra), Rwanda and Darfur. This must stop and never be repeated. As an advanced species, humanity cannot tolerate such acts. Our duty is to end war. How else to fulfill the vow that is set into the castle wall…

The Promise

“IN EVERLASTING MEMORY

of the anguish of our ancestors

may those who died rest in peace

may those who return find their roots

may humanity never again perpetuate

such injustice against humanity

we, the living, vow to uphold this.”

A Trip to Somewhere Special

People asked me why I was going to Africa. When they found out I wasn’t going “on safari”, the change in facial expression indicated they either did not share my enthusiasm, or they really had a genuine interest in the “where, how and why”.

A year ago (August ’06) I did alot of staring at world maps. I was going somewhere special. I just didn’t know where. I had all the necessary ingredients to go; new-found freedom, unsettled wanderlust, and most importantly, discretionary income. 

I thought about some really exotic, remote destinations. Sri Lanka? Bee-you-tee-full country. Incredible hills of green tea. Some of the best beaches in the world. A chance to find Sumitra (more on that in the future). But in the end I had to consider the ongoing match-up between the Tamil Tigers and the GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka). Unfortunately, that’s NOT a spirited cricket match. It’s a tinder box of civil war-like conditions and it forced me to back-burner this destination.

Besides, as a neophyte world traveler I had to be realistic. I’m also a single dad; 24 x 7 x 365. It’s a little easier to globe trot when you don’t have to arrange parental proxies or prepare for what happens if God forbid, you don’t come back.

So I decided on Africa. But I still had to narrow it down. I eliminated North Africa simply because I preferred to go sub-Saharan for my first trip. But I’d definitely consider it for later trips. Central Africa, while being incredibly attractive to my adventurous side, was likely something I was not ready for. South Africa seemed either too polarized, too cosmopolitan, too strip-mined, too something. But like the rest of Africa, it remains high on my must-see list. East Africa certainly had a lot to offer. Wildlife and Kenyan cultures, Tanzania with Kilimanjaro, etc. It was high on the list too. I could see that I’d need to take alot of trips to Africa in the short time I have left.

But then there was West Africa. It seemed to have a little bit of everything. I love the music that comes from West Africa. I was familiar with legendary performers from Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. Then there was the profound evidence of the slave trade, found up and down the Gulf of Guinea coast.  

But I don’t speak a lick of French. And I’d prefer a mostly direct flight from JFK, considering my time was limited and I didn’t want to spend it on layovers. 

My research and Delta Airline’s flight schedule led me to Ghana. I was excited to learn that this West African nation was going to celebrate its 50th independence day on March 6th, 2007. Besides that, English is their official language and they’ve enjoyed a long stretch of peaceful governance. It became the obvious choice.

By September I had booked a $1300.00 flight with Delta and there was no turning back (without some kind of refund penalty). 

This self-funded, solo, photo-op, humanitarian, trip was a go.

Next: Be Prepared