Diane Priestley is an Australian journalist now living in London who travelled to Ghana in Africa with Madventurer as a volunteer. Here she writes about her experiences at an impoverished beach village that desperately needs outside support to break free from the poverty trap and improve the future for hundreds of isolated, deprived children.
Maranatha is an isolated, impoverished community on a windswept strip of beach between the open ocean and the Volta River on the south-eastern coast of Ghana.
The fishing community of around 700 people (with more than half the population children) live in huts made of palm trees and the children attend barren classes in dilapidated bamboo shelters with broken concrete floors.
The beach village is one of the poorest corners of Ghana with the greatest need for the basics of food, water, sanitation and buildings. The villagers live mostly on Banku, a dough of corn maize. Rice, fish, goat meat, eggs and the occasion apple are luxuries.
Typical of isolated communities, social problems are entrenched and the most heartbreaking aspect of their plight is the deprivation of education for the village children hungry for more physical activities and mental stimulation.
Our dedicated crew leader Elisabeth is passionate about improving the standard of living in Maranatha. Madventurer is currently building concrete block classrooms to take the kids out of the unsafe structures. And the project desperately needs an injection of funding and skilled UK tradesmen to volunteer to help local workers complete the build. The government is also supposedly committed to building new classrooms but are yet to start.
Unbelievably the villagers use the beach for toileting. And they wash in the river. This unhygienic situation is a daily health risk and also pollutes the pristine environment. Madventurer is keen to build a block of pit latrines to solve the problem. The village also needs water. I believe rainwater tanks are an obvious solution, at least during rainy season.
Empowering women to create income
Elisabeth enthuses about another project to empower the women to make and sell crafts, to create income. Madventurer needs UK businesswomen to volunteer to devise a business plan and steer the project to sustainability. And micro financing, providing small loans to the women, would get them up and running.
Dynamic young Ghanaian man, Winfred who grew up in poverty in a similar island, is the driving force behind transforming the small community. Single-handedly he has set up a beach camp for tourists, the Ada Tourism Board, the Maranatha Women’s Association and established the school. Now Madventurer has joined forced with Winfred and are committed to supporting the community for the next few years.
On this overcast, sultry Wednesday we head off early to catch the 7.30 am boat. In a flustered rush, I forget to take my glasses and my anti-malaria tablet. I am already a dishevelled wreck before the day starts and I notice as we hurry along the muddy main street how the locals are always immaculately turned-out despite the relentless heat and rough conditions.
Elisabeth, Kara, Sam and James and me set off on the boat, driven by a flashy young man called Desmond. Cruising through the calm slate-green waters, the view of long wooden fishing boats and the tranquil coastline is mesmerising, like a moving postcard.
Volunteers are assigned a class each
Reaching the shore we stagger through the thick sand and past the beach camp to where the children in smart brown and yellow uniforms are lined up in rows and a tall, thin stern teacher is putting them through the drill of their morning prayers, hymns and singing the National Anthem. They march off to their classrooms and the desultory headmaster assigns us volunteers a class each.
When I tentatively enter Grade Four, their usual teacher is a no-show so I am in charge! How terrifying! These island kids have an aggressive edge so once the novelty of a “blafono” (white person) has worn off in about two minutes, they ignore me and argue loudly with each other in their own languages, Ewe and Dangbe, so I’m bewildered and frantically attempting to restore order.
The kids, aged from 11 to 16, don’t have pens or paper and there’s no chalk! So I reach for my one packet of colouring pencils and trusty colouring books, bought for a pittance from the Tiger discount store in Ealing, and proceed to tear out a page for each student and supervise the sharing of the pencils.
The boisterous kids are suddenly quiet and engrossed and unleash their creativity and unique styles; some flamboyant, some meticulous, one girl likes the challenge of an intricate pattern and another serious little chap uses the colours of the Ghanaian flag. They choose their own sticker and proudly place it on their artwork.
I ask them to write essays on the back of their torn-out pages and scrounge for biros, giving them my own pens from my handbag and they write a few poignant lines about themselves and their unusual lives in the beach community.
Then a fight erupts when one boy insults a girl and she begins sobbing and yelling uncontrollably until a teacher comes in with his big stick and threatens to hit the distraught girl. I put my arms around Augustina and wipe her tears.
This humble little school desperately needs volunteer trained teachers from the UK and other countries who can take English classes, art and craft lessons and sports and support and inspire the local teachers. Seeing Maranatha, it is crystal clear that our opportunities in life depend on where we are born and raised. And yet intervention from the outside world can at least give these children an education they deserve and broaden their future prospects.
Beautiful curvy Ashia makes us volunteers very tasty fried rice and I meet handsome Lenny, who is 27 and runs the ‘drinks bar’. He is wearing a necklace of beads with a Santa trinket and explains that Santa is kind and generous and that’s how he wants to be! He has aspirations to study to become a nurse and adopts me instantly as his new mummy and asks me to be his mentor, giving guidance via his fancy mobile phone, once he tops up the credit.
School finishes early and the teachers drift off so Sam and James organise a kick of the football while Kara and I resort to colouring in with the bored stragglers, who are yelling, “Madame, Madame” eager for praise for their efforts. The miracle continues as the two Tiger colouring books are still going strong as I tear out sheet after sheet, determined to get proper resources for these deprived kids.
The boat zips us across the river and we return to the MAD House, exhausted and dragging our feet, wilting in the high humidity. I’ve got to clear my head so tackle my filthy washing and then visit the small store and buy notebooks and 50 black, blue and red biros for the kids at the beach school.
Experience of deprivation too disturbing
I cannot face writing about Maranatha straight away. The experience of such deprivation is too disturbing. I feel overwhelmed. I am also grumpy. I’m sick of the heat, sick of being dirty and sticky with insect repellent, sick of craving crisp, green broccoli, sick of the mess.
I’m missing home and my family and wondering why I am buying into these massive problems. But I counsel myself that I’m just tired and I’ll be okay tomorrow after a night’s sleep. Everyone in the house is a little demoralised today and after dinner of rice, chicken, eggs, spicy tomato paste and plantain followed by mangoes, we all sit around reading quietly and collapse into our bunks.
I have abandoned the suffocating mossie net, taking my chances, relying solely on anti-malaria tablets and gooey insect repellent. So I lie there on my rock hard bunk, in the dark, listening to the whirring of the fan and the gentle rainfall, ruminating about those desperate kids.
If you are a plumber who could help with sanitation and water supply; a builder interested in volunteering with the school building project; a trained teacher interesting in volunteering at the school; a business woman interested in supporting the women’s empowerment or micro financing projects; a doctor or nurse interested in volunteering to do medical check on children or a horticulture or permaculture expert who can train the villagers how to grow veggies in sandy soil at the Maranatha beach village in Ghana, please contact John Lawler at madventurer