I had arrived in Accra after a ten plus hour flight from Washington, DC. We had left in the dark of night and arrived to a gray afternoon on the other side of the world.
As we approached the airport, the lush vastness of green quickly changed to a muted multi-colored rainbow of buildings packed together tighter than a deck of cards.
Walking down the stairs from the plane, my eyes scanned the horizon. I was really here. The mother continent as I have heard it called. Africa.
I was brought to Ghana with a small team from ONE to see the work they and their partners have been doing. The GAVI Alliance was rolling out two new vaccines for pneumonia and rotovirus across the country and there was a large celebration planned at the end of the week that we’d be attending. Our agenda also included visiting hospitals, a meeting at the US Embassy and conversations with local business owners to give us an overall feel for the country and the variety of work that was happening.
My wanderlust is strong and I love traveling to new locations to meet the people, taste the food and capture it all with my camera. My new A7 strap would keep my equally new Canon 5D Mark III close to my side and always ready to shoot. It hadn’t been field tested yet, so I had a backup shooter in my GORUCK GR2 at all times. While I didn’t mean for this to be a trip of me testing out new gear, it ended up being that way and thankfully everything performed above and beyond my expectations.
Accra is on the southern coast of the country and is the capital of this nation of 25 million people. We’d be spending the majority of our journey in this general area. I’d like to return some day and head into northern Ghana where the houses are round and the muslim population is much greater. I’d also like to head to the west to see the slave castles and other ports of call that run along the sea. But, there is always an ever going list of places I’d love to see and for now I’d rather focus on the tale of where I’ve been.
The Accra Arts Market sounded like the perfect first adventure. I had come to the country with plans to purchase fabric and beads for my daughter. My son would be getting a mask, drum or other masculine item that caught my attention. The plan was to find my wife a necklace or something that would look great on her. I figured the sooner in the week I found my desired treasures, the sooner I wouldn’t have to worry about them and I assumed all could be found here.
A van of fresh off the airplane from America faces sure does draw a lot of instant attention at a market. The door hadn’t been open for more than a second when “John McCain” nudged me in that way that any guy trying to sell something to you will and propositioned me with, “You want hand carved masks? I got the best shop in the market. Come, let’s go see.”
Now, in any other corner of the world I might assume I was going to be lead into an alley and never come out, but I’ve always had a good read of people and these guys were just born salesmen. They knew a mark when they saw one and they knew why we were at the market.
My advice for you when going into a market like this is be ready to use a firm “no thank you” whenever needed. Granted, in this case it had to be said more times than should be necessary.
Even after we bought a couple of things and had enough it got to the point where the pushiness crossed over to border line worry as we waited in the van for the final two to return. We were surrounded by people trying to sell us stuff. Knocking on the windows, waving and trying to get our attention. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and the whole time was a blur of adrenaline laced with confusion that I’d rather not repeat. It was far from the first impression I was hoping Ghana would make on me.
The crashing sounds of ocean waves, mixed with an ice cold pilsner glass of Club beer will do wonders to make you forget all the ails you. Add in sitting around the table with my fellow travelers dining on Red Red, chicken and the most perfect fries cooked in palm oil that you’ve ever tasted and it was a great night. Plus, this is the night I discovered the magic spicy sweet treat known as bukom kelewele that you absolutely must try if ever in this part of the world.
We were on a humanitarian mission and we set off the next day early to learn about the 86 year old Princess Marie Louise Hospital whose mission is treating acute malnutrition. They have a dedicated staff and a thriving volunteer population serving the 200 plus patients they see every single day.
Seeing the starving kids on television does not prepare you for seeing it up close and personal. Standing outside the door of the in-patient room we were about to enter I took a deep breath to still myself for what may lay on the the other side of the door.
Thankfully it was not the room full of skeletal children and babies I had feared.
Yes, there was mothers, babies and young children in there, but it was manageable and everyone was very welcoming for us to intrude on their privacy. We were welcomed with open arms and that is when I met the girl that would be on my mind for the rest of the journey and perhaps my life.
Mercy had hope in her eyes. She was scared, but she knew she was going to be ok. It had been a month and a half since a hospital volunteer had found her lying on the ground next to her dead mother. For the first month at the hospital she barely made a sound and most certainly did not speak a word.
When I met her she was overly friendly with a smile that melted your heart. I felt horrible as I asked if I could take her photo. There was no way I could take a photo of her body as it was too painful and what right did I have? I tried to focus on her face. That beautiful face. But, even as I tried to take it, it hurt to do so. I shook and the best autofocus in the world wasn’t going to save that.
I held her hand. I thanked her and told her to get better. She told me she was 13, the same age as my son, and I found myself instantly full of tears. I had thought she was nine or ten at most. I couldn’t imagine my son in this much pain.
I needed to leave and as I said goodbye she tightened her grip on my hand. Her eyes pleaded not to leave, but I knew there was nothing more I could do for her.
We would leave the hospital all changed. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about it, but you could see it the other’s eyes. Nothing really prepares you for a moment like we had just shared.
The journey continued to the other end of the dial.
Through the streets of Accra we would travel. Street signs don’t exist and you know you are not going the right way when you recognize houses and landmarks that you’ve recently passed. As the lead car stopped to get their bearings, our driver stepped out to relieve himself in the middle of the road.
Our afternoon found us spending time with local business owners who had chased a dream and were now living it. Tekura is a shaded workshop full of skilled artisans creating a variety of authentic and unique African art pieces. Stools and elephant tables were the product of the day as they had a large order to ship to Pier One back in the states. We were also warmly greeted at TK Beads where not only would we learn about how they were made, but we’d paint our own as well.
There is no future in bead painting for me, but with the kilos of beads I bought to bring home to Emily, maybe she’ll be rewarded for her creativity. She is already wearing a bracelet she made and everyone at school loves that they she got them from Africa.
Too many people think of Africa as the poor continent with nothing but famine, poverty and war. Yet, as we sat down to dinner with students from Ashesi University and heard their dreams of fighting leprosy, increasing tourism to Ghana and starting new literacy programs you couldn’t help but realize that there is a bright future and endless possibility for Ghana and her people. I was proud to discover that Bentley University, where I graduated from, has an exchange program with them and I can’t wait to find out more about it.
Wednesday, we set off for Africa’s third largest hospital to learn about their HIV clinic and to meet with three HIV+ mothers who due to the agressive treatment options had not passed the disease onto their children.
The fact that 98% of the babies born to HIV+ mothers who use the regimen remain negative still makes me shake my head in amazement. Doris, who I chatted with had one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen and the beauty to go with it. Her spirit is one I won’t soon forget and I hope her wedding goes off without a hitch this July.
Another profound memory would be created here as early in our tour we had been told about the yellow folders that every HIV+ patient was put into. It was a throw away comment, that for some reason I remembered. We walked into this damn room and suddenly we were presented with row upon row of yellow folders. The fact came back to me and I had to ask how many folders I was looking at. More than 16,000 was the answer.
As our conversations came to a close, the sky turned black and you could feel the tingles that come just before a major storm. It may have officially been the dry season, but we were about to get very wet.
The skies opened and gave a refreshing rebirth to the temperature. The outside ceremony we had thought about going to for World Malaria Day became a distant thought and it was announced that we’d be heading to Frankie’s for lunch.
I shocked the room when by impulse I blurted out, “Oh wow, they have great milkshakes!”
The look on the locals faces was pure pricelessness. How in the world did this silly American know that Frankie’s made good milkshakes was written all over their blank stares?
I gleefully explained that I had asked world traveler and author Chris Guillebeau for any suggestions on Ghana and all he told me was where he had a great milkshake. The chances of me winding up there were slim to none and yet now it was happening.
The milkshakes lived up to the dream. It is the little things that make me happy. Especially when you are over 5,000 miles from home.
The big day had arrived. The reason ONE had brought us all me to Ghana.
No more field visit casual. The pressed shirt and good pants got pulled out and we headed to massive celebration with the GAVI Alliance to celebrate the rollut of the new vaccines. There would be speeches, dancers and the First Lady of Ghana all under the hot morning sun of Independence Square.
There were children, students, Chiefs and queen mothers. Camera crews angled for the best shot and drummers provided a rhythm to distract us from the blazing sun shining down from above.
The speeches sounded mostly the same to me. They started with a long list of formal greetings, talked about the importance of vaccines and then thanked everyone. It was formal and sterile as any ceremony of this sort would be.
I was pleasantly surprised when the First Lady took to the podium and with a grin stated matter of factly, “I’m a teacher, so you have to listen to me.” I liked her instantly and at the end of the ceremony I even got to shake her hand.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had taken a photo before the ceremony of the baby that would be getting the first vaccine. Just another reason why a good photographer should always trust their gut. If it feels like a photo you want to take, push the shutter button and make the image.
Going from this sort of ceremony to the US Embassy made a perfectly logical transition. We were there to meet with a team from US AID to learn about Feed the Future and the other work they were doing in the area. As a taxpayer it is important that we know where our money goes and I’ll be honest that I didn’t fully understand the scope of what this particular government agency does before our meeting.
It was fascinating to hear their focus on everything from agriculture to literacy to consistant power. With one billion people suffering globally from chronic hunger, it is groups like US AID who are working hard over the long term to sustainably feed people. That is no small undertaking, but they have solid programs in place that need consistant funding to be maintained and I hope our government continues to do so.
By the end of the day my head was swirling around ideas on ways that I could work with ONE with a more dedicated focus towards the men of Africa. They currently have a ONE Moms program, but I kept hearing about all the changes and education that needed to be done for the fathers in Ghana and throughout Africa and my mind never sits idle around a presented problem.
I’m still noodling about it right now and hopefully it’ll lead to something in the future.
With only one day left in the country before we took our late night flights home, the plan was to join other journalists from around the globe to go out in the field to see the vaccines in action.
As our security escorted convoy made it’s way at break neck speed beyond the city’s boundaries the whole landscape changed from the stale gray and dusty red to lush green. The cars climbed up the side of the mountain as we drove past the President’s summer house. The roads narrowed and I was shocked to see speed bumps become very common. I was told that they were for the safety of the villagers.
Nurses greeted us at the first village and explained to us how the elders were gathering under the tree to meet with us. They walked us through their tactics and approaches to making sure that children were given the proper shots when they needed them. You could see that they were proud of their job and enjoyed telling all of us about it.
I love the tradition that when coming to a meeting like this we would walk around and greet each elder one by one. Then we would be expected to sit and they would return the favor.
The Chief of the village had put on his Sunday best and while his English was broken, his smile never went away the entire time we were his guests. I was glad he was very accommodating for my request to have a photo taken with him.
I mentioned to the UNICEF translator in my vehicle that I loved how no matter who I met or where I went in Ghana that everyone had a smile on their face. It didn’t matter if they were begging on the street or working in a restaurant. No matter their situation in life they still had a smile on their face. Her response is one that I’ll never forget, “It is all some people have.”
The second village was further out in the bush. The houses were now clay and because there was not a tree large enough, they had built a special shelter just for our arrival. Knowing that they had taken the time to construct something like this drove home how important of a day it was.
One of the elders got a kick out of calling me “big man” when I greeted him and we all shared a great laugh about that. He’d later tell me that I was welcome back anytime. I’d love to make that happen.
The children were not too sure about all of us with our cameras walking around and checking things out. I noticed three boys laying on a wall watching me and took their photo.
I walked over and showed it to them and they all got a big laugh. They called over a couple more friends and I thought I’d really blow their minds and captured them on video and showed it to them. If smiles can be bigger than they had on their faces, I can’t imagine them.
Sometimes you don’t need any words and soon kids were coming from all over to have their pictures taken. A portrait I had hoped to take of a kid in a Dots t-shirt soon turned into a massive group shot. Who was I to say no? *grin*
It was a long last day in the field and as we got back to the hotel, we crashed in the bar over cold drinks. We knew that we were on our last hours together and for some of us, our paths might never cross again. You never hope that is the truth, but it is the reality of the busy world we live in.
I’ve been home now for almost a week. I’ve posted all my photos, I’ve chosen some of my favorites photos and now I’ve written this mammoth post that I wanted to serve as a true travel journal for me and others to go back and read at random points of time in the future.
I still dream of seeing the world and there is not a single location on this big blue marble that I don’t hope to travel to some day.
I also now have my third continent checked off on my dream of shooting photos on all them. I may not have eaten the grass cutter or fufu I was hoping for, but it just means I’ll have to do it on another trip.
ONE is an amazing organization doing great work. I’m proud to have been able to take part in just a small sliver of the activities they do on a daily basis. I have a new found respect for the work they and other advocacy organizations do.
Someone on the trip told me that Ghana is sort of Africa 101. If that is true, I can’t wait to take the AP course next time!
Photo Credit of me with camera to Amy Graff.