I grabbed the hands of several of the children in the schoolyard and led them out into the clearing to play a game. They smiled up at me both curious and timid. We made a circle, and then I took the first turn running around the circle while they clapped and chanted. The children laughed delightedly. In the distant field Todd played football with the older students. Lori Lynn played with the littlest ones, while my mom, Cathy, let students take turns strumming her ukulele (a small guitar like instrument) in preparation for a sing-along. In a few minutes when classes resumed, the four of us would go into the classrooms and teach songs and dances, read books, play educational games, share where we came from, and overall partake in a very unique cultural exchange.
This was all made possible through Opportunity Education (OE), an organization that provides educational resources to 1,215 schools in thirteen developing countries. Our group of about twenty Americans had travelled to Ghana to spend a week in some of the schools around the small city of Agona Swedru.
My mom had participated in OE’s trip to Uganda the previous year, and had come back greatly affected by her experience. Teaching and spending time with some of Uganda’s very poorest students had been profound and pivotal for her. When she told me OE was traveling to Ghana and she was thinking of participating again, I knew right away I wanted to go with her and share in the experience.
Our first day my mom and I were placed in a large school in Swedru proper. We had the students tell us ten things about Ghana and then shared ten things about the United States. On the following day we did an art project, utilizing the scissors, paper, and coloring supplies we had brought with us. For the rest of the week my mom and I, along with our travel companions Todd and Lori Lynn, were taken to a different school outside the small village of Gomoa Tarkwa. Here the classes were much smaller and I was able to teach dance and poetry, while my mom taught a lesson about culture.
In the evenings my mom and I stayed with our incredibly gracious hosts: Solomon, Vic, and their two sons. Vic made us the most delicious dinners, piled high nightly. “Try it and tell me if you like it,” she would instruct. We would feast on her delicious cooking, filling ourselves until we were stuffed. Inevitably she would treat us to succulent pineapple for dessert, and inevitably we would somehow find room in our stomachs for more.
On the first night we arrived, Vic announced to my mom, “You are my mama,” and from that moment on my mom enjoyed being called “Mama” by the whole family. My mom can be quite funny, and the family would often laugh at her jokes and say, “Oh Mama, you are too much!”
On our last morning with Solomon and Vic, their eldest daughter, who is married and has two children of her own, arrived early in the morning to say goodbye to “Mama” and me. For people we had known just a few short days, we hugged and exchanged information and promised to keep in touch. Friendship had sprouted fast.
In the schools, a different kind of friendship emerged. While we couldn’t develop the same close connection we did with our host family, we developed a strong rapport with the students and staff. Todd could barely eat lunch without boys begging him to get out onto the football field. Lori Lynn was seldom seen without one of her favorite little ones. Children followed me around doing the dances I had taught them. When pipe cleaners (an arts and crafts tool) were passed out, my mom and Mr. Anderson, the P-6 teacher, made silly glasses alongside the students and took funny pictures. Several students made me pipe-cleaner rings, and on the last day one very kind student made me a necklace from bamboo and seeds.
OE’s work supplying resources for schools, providing professional development for teachers, and pairing sister schools in the United States with schools in Africa and Asia are all part of the web of its reach. But of all those things, the opportunity for someone like me to come and experience Ghana via schools and a home stay is remarkably unique. I hope the students, teachers, Solomon, Vic, and their sons and daughter enjoyed our visit as much as I cherish my experience in Ghana. By sharing the threads of home, games, lessons, songs, dances, and perhaps most importantly, smiles, a web has been built between people who might otherwise never have met.
Emmaly Wiederholt joined the Opportunity Education Trip to Ghana in June 2013. Emmaly is a New Mexico native who lives and works as a professional dancer and writer in San Francisco. Earning a BFA in ballet and a BS in political science from the University of Utah before moving to California to train at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. As a professional dancer and writer, she enjoys leading dance classes and writing for diverse media sources as well creating her own publication “Stance on Dance” to explore dance through writing. Her article on the OE Ghana trip reflects her passion for life and the mission for those OE serves. According to Emmaly, “I was inspired by my mom’s experience with OE in Uganda and was thrilled to share the OE Ghana Education Experience Trip with my mom.”